‘Panda’ from the Nepalese, nigalya ponya meaning bamboo footed.
The red panda was the first ‘panda’ to be know to the West as early as the 1800’s! In 1825 Frenchman Frederic Cuvier published an account describing the red panda and named the species, Ailurus fulgens fulgens, or shining cat.
By the 1840’s English naturalist Brian Houghton Hodgson had written a detailed study on the red panda or ‘Wah’. Focusing on habitat and diet.
It was not until 1869 that the giant panda was identified. However to distinguish the species, the first panda was renamed the lesser panda.
It’s been eight years since I saw my first red panda, having been oblivious to their existence until then. For me it was love-at-first-sight! They seem to be a number of animals all rolled into one, which has caused countless debates as to what family or classification of animal the red panda truly is.
Are they bear-cats? They are cat sized (always a plus in my book) and rather bear-like, though they are not part of the ursidae family.
They bark like a dog: There is little published evidence but the red panda is highly susceptible to diseases like canine distemper.
Their vocalisations sound similar to birds:
A living fossil: Recent DNA studies have concluded that the red panda is in its own family of the Ailuridae, being part of the super-family the Musteloidea, (weasels, skunks and raccoons).
The only similarity with giant pandas is their diet (bamboo) and the false thumb, an elongated wrist bone that acts like a sixth digit. It helps with holding food and climbing, especially head first!
Red pandas are found largely in temperate, deciduous forests, from Nepal to China and Myanmar. There are two subspecies, Ailurus fulgens fulgens and Ailurus fulgens styani. Their red fur, one of the densest of all mammals (for insulation), is perfect camouflage during autumn.
Due to living in Himalayan regions, red pandas prefer cooler days. Winter is the best time to find them active.
Although they have a penchant for bamboo, eating up to 45% of their body weight a day, red pandas are classed as carnivores. They eat fruit, insects, eggs and small birds.
Red pandas have a slow metabolism due to being unable to digest bamboo properly, hence being rather sedentary. I’ve noticed many zoo guests just walk past red panda enclosures because they have been asleep up a tree. In most cases you need to visit several times in the hope of catching one awake. Being a crepuscular animal doesn’t help either as they are more active at dawn and dusk.
They are solitary animals, only coming together for mating. The female is only receptive one day a year. The breeding season is usually January to April with birth around June/July. The litter usually consists of one to four cubs, but usually two.
In 2010 I was honoured to witness Chester Zoo’s female red panda, Lushui move her cub, Lily from nest to nest. They do this to avoid predators. Cubs come out of the nest from around three months, and stay with their mothers for about a year before finding their own territory. Their lifespan in captivity can reach 15 years.
However beautiful red pandas are, they are classified as endangered by the IUCN. The main threats to them are deforestation, hunting, poaching and illegal trade. In China there is a traditional custom dating back to around the 13th century where red panda pelts are given to newlyweds as a sign of ‘good luck’. Red pandas are also predated upon by snow leopards and martens.
Conservation: Exact numbers of red pandas in Asia are relatively unknown, estimates say up to 10,000 adults. There is a worldwide effort to protect the red panda and its habitat. In many of the countries where the red panda is found, their habitat has been designated areas of protection, though these areas are hard to police. The Red Panda Network liaise with ‘forest guardians’ to educate and highlight the need to conserve red panda habitat. They are also working directly with the creators of the Panchthar-Ilam-Singhalila (PIS corridor), which will be the first Red Panda Protected Forest.
In captivity there are two long term initiatives for breeding, the Red Panda Species Survival Programme (SSP) and the European Endangered Species Programme (EES) which offers a ‘stud book’ of potential mates.
Popular culture: There have been a number of depictions of red pandas on many platforms over the years. Another name for the red panda is the Fire Fox. Mozilla use this name for their web browser, though their logo is ambiguous.
Cinema: In 2008 DreamWorks released Kung Fu Panda with Shifu, being a lose representation of a red panda! A year earlier an animated Barbie film, the Island Princess had a red panda as a friendly aide.
In 2013 Pocket Gems released a game called Animal Adventure with a red panda as one of the main characters.
The future…is still uncertain.
At the time of writing, the WWF have announced that the giant panda’s status has improved from endangered to vulnerable. Hopefully the red panda being under the ‘umbrella’ of conservational efforts for the giant panda, will start to feel the effects of these protection methods soon?
And finally: Sadly, earlier this year, the Red Panda Network announced that poaching of the red panda had increased in 2016! Their annual International Red Panda Day (17th September 2016) will focus on anti-poaching initiatives.
The road ahead may still be long but there is hope for the future of the red panda. Conservation efforts are starting to produce results for not only the giant panda but tigers also, why not for the red panda? They have so much going for them. To me they are sweet, endearing animals, they are all superstars, none other than Ming Ming!
Thanks for reading.
Angela Glatston: Red Panda: Biology and Conservation of the First Panda.
Whence the Red Panda? Flynn JJ, Nedbal MA, Dragoo JW, Honeycutt RL.
If you have been inspired by what you have read, then why not continue the message? You can join in with this years International Red Panda Day at your local animal park/zoo.