The Red Panda

Shining Cat, Firefox, Himalayan Raccoon, Red Cat-Bear – the poetic-sounding names which have been given to the red panda lend as much to the mystery of this species as the secretive nature of the animal itself.

The Origins of the Red Panda Is it a cat or is it a bear, and why are some people concerned that the red panda will become extinct? To find out, we have to start by looking at what we know about the origins of this species.

Frederic Cuvier, a French zoologist was to take the honour of giving the red panda its scientific name in 1825 (Ailurus fulgens), although it was another European who first described these mysterious animals. English Major-General Thomas Hardwicke resided in India between the late 1770s to 1823. Throughout his military service, he was able to observe a vast number of species in various regions of the country. It seems that the keen naturalist was one of the earliest

Westerners to see the red panda, and although his paper on the species (which he called the Wah , a local name given for its call) was written before Cuvier’s description, it was not published until much later. Hardwicke is also given credit for noting that the Nepalese called these creatures “nigalya poonya”, meaning eater of bamboo. Etymologists think that, like the old game of Chinese Whispers, poonya became panda as the word was passed from one person to another. Incidentally, this is probably where some of the confusion over the connection between the red panda and the giant panda lies – both of these species eat bamboo, so logic says they both must be pandas, right?

Various theories have been presented as to which taxonomic group the red panda fits into as scientists have tried to solve this riddle. Originally, naturalists believed that the red panda was part of the raccoon family (Procyonidae) due to shared characteristics including jaw-shape and distinctive ringed tail.

After the discovery of the giant panda in 1869, similarities between the two species led some to hypothesise that they were the same family and both should be classed as bears (Ursidae). This theory was accepted until fairly recently, when evidence to the contrary was unearthed. Fossilised panda remains dating back to 25 million years ago have shown that the red panda’s predecessors range was much more extensive than it is today. Studies into these fossils suggest that although the red panda and giant panda do have certain connections, it is a case of convergent evolution (originating at the same point but evolving in two distinct and different forms).

Most taxonomists now agree that the is now the only living red panda representative of the family Ailuridae. Furthermore, two sub-species of Ailuridae have been identified. Ailuridae fulgens, the variant which was named by Cuvier, which is slightly smaller and darker red colour with distinctive facial markings, and Styani with its thick winter coat and black markings, which was described by FW Styan.

The Red Panda in the Wild

Both red panda sub-species are very similar in appearance with subtle differences in size and colouring. Weighing in at between three and six kilos, an adult red panda has a head and body length between 56-52cm in length, with the bushy tail adding between 28-49cm. The distinctive mask-like white markings on the face, whiskers and triangle shaped ears are reminiscent of a cat, while the reddish colouration of the fur is fox-like , so it is not difficult to see why the origins of the red panda have been so difficult to ascertain.

While red pandas once may have roamed throughout Europe and America, the population of this species is now lives in a very limited range. The sub-species Styani is found in Northern Myanmar, the Hengduan Mountains and East Nuijiang River in China, at elevations of approximately 1,500 – 4000m. In Nepal, North East India and Bhutan are home to the red panda sub-species identified as Fulgens. These regions are mountainous and cloaked with forests with abundant bamboo, which is the staple food-stuff for this unique creature.

are red pandas endangered
Photo By Adrian Pingstone [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In terms of behaviour, red pandas are tree-dwellers which tend to be most active at night. Feeding mainly on bamboo shoots supplemented by berries, flowers, bird eggs and insects, the red panda spend nearly half of each day foraging and much of the remaining time resting. Bamboo is a foodstuff which is low in nutrients and only a quarter of the food consumed is absorbed, so red pandas need to eat around one third of their body-weight daily. Surprisingly, considering their diet, a red panda’s digestive system is closer to that of a carnivore. The gut is short, allowing food to pass through the body quickly, whereas herbivores usually have a longer gut which contains microbes to aid digestion. However, the red panda does have some physical adaptations which have evolved to improve its ability to eat bamboo – from the strong jaw and heavy molars which allow them to crush and chew tough shoots to a “thumb” bone at the wrist which allows them to grasp stems more efficiently.

In general, red pandas are a solitary species and each adult has its own home territory with an area of between two and five kilometres. Little is known about the reproduction and breeding of red pandas in the wild, though it is thought that this is one of the only times when this species spends time in groups. Both females and males employ courtship behaviour, leaving olfactory messages with their scent glands and performing a variety of twittering calls to attract a mate. After mating, the female builds a nest and following a pregnancy of around 135 days, the cubs are born.

Litters can vary from between one and four young, with the average number of cubs produced by captive red pandas being two. The young stay with the mother until the next breeding season, by which time they are fully grown and ready to survive alone.

Sound of a Red Panda Twittering 

Threats & Conservation
The red panda is now classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and the available data suggests that the number of this species are in decline. While zoos across the globe have had varying success with red panda breeding programmes, wild red pandas face a number of threats and estimates of the total population stand at less than 10,000. Some ecologists believe that the true number of individuals left in the wild is closer to 2,500.

Asian Red Dog Threat to Red Pandas
Photo by Ralf Schmode

Predation by species including the Asiatic wild dog, eagles and leopards is natural – after all, red pandas are below these species in the food-chain. Competition for food is also a factor to be considered, with bamboo rats and macaque monkeys amongst those who also rely on bamboo to survive. However, by far the greatest dangers to the red panda are as a result of human behaviour.

Illegal hunting of red panda for their pelts(even within protected reserves) is of extreme concern to conservationists and although the practice of gifting red panda fur hats to newly married couples has almost died out, it does still continue within certain religions. Some reports also suggest that red panda is now being served as a delicacy in Chinese restaurants. Logging and clearing of land for farming and construction has also played a significant role in the destruction of the red panda environment. In the meantime, the effects of global warming and climate change have had an impact on plant growth in the bamboo forests that these animals rely on to survive.

The Red Panda in the Future
As the habitat of the red panda becomes smaller and their food supplies become more limited, it may seem that there is little that can be done to help this unique species. Despite this, growing awareness of the red panda in the Western world – from providing Mozilla’s inspiration for the name of their internet browser Firefox to the option of choosing to be represented by a red panda character in the role-playing game World of Warcraft : Mists of Pandalia, means that more people are learning of this species predicament. Zoos, animal sanctuaries and wildlife charities are also doing what they can to educate the public about the red panda, in particular running donation schemes with the aim of making funding available to employ local rangers to implement anti-poaching laws in the reserves where the red pandas live.

We still know relatively little about the red panda’s life in the wild and only by doing what we can to preserve their habitat and prevent poaching will we ever get the chance to discover all of their secrets once and for all

Main photo credit by By Dave Pape (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons