Currently on the brink of extinction, red pandas join a growing list of animals threatened with extinction. The World Wildlife Organization estimates red panda’s population at less than 10,000 individuals. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines the species as “endangered because its population has plausibly declined by 50% over the last three generations (estimated at 18 years) and this decline is projected to continue and probably intensify in the next three generations.” If you aim to help the species, it is important for you to learn about their traits, their vulnerabilities, and about the threats they face.
Once classified as relatives of the giant black and white pandas, red pandas were only recently determined to be more closely related to raccoons and skunks. Scientists assigned them the unique family name of Ailurus Fulgens. Red pandas range across the Nepal Mountains, Burma and the Chinese-Western Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, with half of their habitat being in the Eastern Himalayas. Known by a variety of names (cat-bear, bear-cat, firefox, “lesser” panda), the red panda grows to the size of a large house cat of about 11 pounds, with a body of 20 inches and a three-quarters long tail. They live from 8 to 12 years.
With a thick reddish-orange coat, bushy ringed tail pointed ears, and black underbelly, the facial markings of red pandas, resemble those of raccoons. They also share the raccoon’s extended wrist bone which acts much like a thumb.
These relatively individual animals spend most of their lives in high-altitude forests, where they move easily among the branches. Being nocturnal, they wait until dusk to feed. Their diet can be up to 95% bamboo, a very woody and difficult to digest plant. To get the adequate nourishment, they consume leaves, acorns, roots, flowers, eggs, insects, birds, and occasionally rodents. In cold months, they spend over twelve hours per day searching for food, regulating their metabolism to conserve energy.
Destruction of Forests and Nesting Sites
A female red panda’s territory averages around 1 mile, though she doesn’t range that far in a single day. She may sometimes overlap with other individuals of her species. Males typically go twice as far to find mates and reproduce, but do not remain in one place to raise the offsprings. Females build nests in tree branches or hollow tree trunks to deliver their young. Blind at birth, the babies stay in the nest for three months and live with their mother for a year, reaching adulthood at 18 months.
Cutting down trees and increasing deforestation levels are leading causes that destroy their nesting sites, likely to kill many vulnerable offsprings. Having fewer trees, they are forced to handle even more devastating monsoons eroding soils that further decimate their habitats. Forests have vanished in many areas of Nepal and India, and their natural lands are no longer a proper place to live in.
Low Reproduction Rate and High Infant Mortality
Females only breed every one to two years. After a 135 day gestation period, 1 to (rarely) 4 youngs are born in late spring or early summer. Research shows that many babies do not survive to reach adulthood. Apparently, small reproduction and little infant survival rates limit the panda population recovery and active breeding.
Natural predators of red pandas are snow leopards, martens, large birds, and humans. Hunters poach them for medicine and wild meat, with furs and tails sometimes used for hats and the clothing industry. Accidental deaths occur when pandas are killed in traps that were initially set for other animals. Private collectors pay high prices to obtain them as pets. Also, herders and their dogs occasionally kill them as they may stand in their way. Incidentally, canine distemper, lethal to the red panda, is carried to the forests by shepherds’ dogs.
Development Devastates Food Sources
According to the World Wildlife Organization, Langtang National Park in Nepal serves as home to 38% of the global red panda population.
It is also the primary resource for the 30,000 people nearby. They graze domestic animals which provide milk for local cheese factories. Consequently, the cattle face undergrowth. Trees are cut for fuel and agricultural expansion. As a result, bamboo habitat beneath the trees is lost. Knowing that bamboo has a ten-year boom/death cycle, diminishing growth increases stress on food supply.
Isolation of Genetic Pools
As forests are cut, smaller bands of bamboo and separate islands of forest tend to isolate panda populations. The distance between remaining forested areas becomes too far for them to travel when food becomes scarce. The distance further serves to create genetic islands which concern scientists. When small groups of animals become isolated, inbreeding and lack of genetic diversity weaken the overall population, leaving them less likely to survive and thrive.
Solutions for Change
In attempting to feed and provide for their families, people unwittingly destroy the forest resources that also diminish the healthy environment they base on. Suggested ways of providing revenue to residents without degrading the habitat may include growing sustainable crops and increasing wildlife tourism. Villagers could offer food, lodging, and souvenirs, and work in the parks; guided tours with an emphasis on non-invasive small scale groups would reduce habitat impact.
How else can you change the situation?
The 2015 IUCN report identified four major strategies for addressing the drastic panda population decline. A few information in the report advises to:
- Protect habitats by balancing development and improving habitat management. Reduce habitat degradation by planting bamboo, requiring tourist permits, restricting entry during the breeding season, reducing livestock that trampled undergrowth, and improving fire protection.
- Reduce deaths by strengthening and enforcing hunting and poaching laws. Reinvigorate the wild population with captive-bred animals. Control, vaccinate and sterilize dogs to reduce disease transmission.
Improve awareness of a variety of media outreach and education in schools.
The red panda does not have time to survive without immediate protective measures. It can be done with focused effort, funding, and teaching, but it must be done quickly before the population reaches the point that it cannot efficiently recover. With your involvement and commitment, we can save these defenseless animals before it is too late.