The red panda is a curious beast. Although it is most definitely red, with dark ruddy brown fur, it is only distantly related to its better known namesake and is instead closer to skunks and raccoons[sc:1]. The small arboreal mammal is native to the Eastern Himalayas and south-western China, roaming through the forests of India, Nepal and Bhutan in solitude, feeding off bamboos, leaves, fruit, insects and occasionally small lizards and bird eggs[sc:2]. However, one thing it does share with the giant panda is the sad fact that it is facing extinction.
Despite the fact that the animal is protected by legislation such as the Wild Animal Protection Law in China and the Wildlife Act of 1994 in Myanmar, populations are becoming increasingly fragmented, mainly due to the impact of two factors: poaching and habitat loss[sc:3]. Accelerating the effects of these actions is the fact that red pandas have a naturally low birth rate, usually only giving birth to one or two pups a year, and a high natural death rate[sc:4]. IUCN estimates put the global population at around 10,000 and predicts a continuing decline of at least 10% over the next decades
Throughout their range, red pandas are experiencing a dramatic loss of habitat, mainly due to commercial logging, firewood demand, livestock grazing and land clearing for the sake of human habitation[sc:5]. Although large areas within the red panda’s range are protected, such as in Nepal where 20% of the land is designated as protected area, the problem is that much of the animal’s habitat falls outside these zone, leaving them vulnerable[sc:6].
The animal’s reliance on bamboo as a food source is also a contributing factor to its falling numbers. Its preferred bamboo has a peculiar biology which means it only grows well in certain high altitude conditions[sc:7]. As climate change alters optimum bamboo growing conditions and makes it harder to survive, so too does the panda suffer, as it has no alternative to turn to.
The other main threat to red pandas is poaching, as they are much sought after for their handsome fur, particularly in certain Chinese provinces, where it is much valued by newlyweds as a symbol of a happy marriage[sc:8]. WWF has also reported finding red panda fur caps for sale in Bhutan, while the animals are also often caught in traps intended for other wildlife, such as wild pigs and deer. Although red pandas are elusive in the wild, being largely solitary and secretive, they are not aggressive animals and possess little in the way of defenses, making them easy targets for determined hunters, and which contributes heavily to their decline.
While the red panda might not be quite so charismatic as the giant panda, there is no denying that the loss of this charming and innocent animal would be just as sad. While zoos are attempting to do their part to ensure their continued existence, through captive breeding programmes, they are also contributing to the problem of the animal’s continued decline[sc:9]. Although numbers of captured specimens sold to zoos have decreased, the process still exists, while demand among private collectors is also high[sc:1][sc:0]. It’s clear that interest in protecting the red panda is high but the question remains, will it be enough?