The red pandas of the Eastern Himalayas live in dense, temperate forests where red moss and white lichen cover the branches, and bamboo grows down below. They flit through the trees around dusk and dawn, eating up to a third of their body weight each day in bamboo shoots and leaves – nibbling in a dainty fashion. When the opportunity arises, they snatch eggs and small animals in their small, bear-like claws.
Red pandas turn up on social media frequently, walking on their hind legs or playing in pairs. In the wild, they live mostly in isolation, outside of the mating season, and face many threats from human development and poaching. According to the San Diego Zoo, there may now be as few as 2,500 left in the world, while the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the animal as endangered.
The Red Panda
Red pandas have gone through repeated taxonomic reclassification since their first description in 1825 as part of the raccoon family. Thanks to more recent, genetic research, they now have their own family, Ailuridae, containing two different species, Ailurus fulgens fulgens (found in Nepal and elsewhere) and the larger Ailurus fulgens refulgens (found in China).
How did red pandas come to get their common name? It may have come from their old Nepalese name, nigalya ponya, which roughly translates to “bamboo footed.”
Adults weigh 8 to 17 pounds, about as much as a large cat, and like cats, they regularly bathe themselves.
They may have once had a vastly wider range as scientists discovered 5-million-year-old fossils belonging to a new species in Tennessee, in 2004 and 2006. Similar remains have been found in Britain and China.
Why Are Red Pandas Endangered?
Red pandas (which are more akin to raccoons than pandas) live in areas of Nepal, China, India, Myanmar and Bhutan. They are increasingly under threat from hydro-electric projects, large transmission lines, road construction, agricultural encroachment and mining, according to the Red Panda Network. A surprising number of humans also live in these high-altitude areas, as a 2021 study found.
Researchers staked out a section of eastern Nepal and strapped GPS units to 10 local red pandas, to track how humans have affected their habits. This was no isolated, wilderness area as researchers found about 700 people living there amid roads, walking trails and livestock herds.
The GPS data showed that the red pandas “partitioned their activity patterns” by avoiding risky areas, such as roads. When they did cross the latter, they often broke with their normal sleeping patterns and crossed during the day.
In other cases, the data showed them spreading out as they searched across depleted forestland for food.
Cuddly red pandas, which have ample undercoats, face natural predation from leopards and dholes, aka Asiatic wild dogs. They also face poaching from humans, which seems to be on the rise, in the wake of poverty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Authorities in eastern Nepal seized a record 37 pelts in 2021, according to the Red Panda Network.
Read More: 5 Endangered Animals You Should Meet
What Is Being Done to Protect Red Pandas?
The Red Panda Network has trained 81 “Forest Guardians” to monitor 60 forests where red pandas live, plus four national forests in Nepal. They watch for landslides that could affect the animals, along with bamboo die-off, deforestation, forest fires and trapping.
The organization also vaccinated 150 dogs in 2021 against distemper and some 2,000 wild ones against rabies, which can spread to red pandas.
Many countries have already taken steps to protect them with strict environmental laws. In Nepal, killing one of the animals carries up to a 10-year prison sentence.