Red pandas have stolen the hearts of many with their cute faces and silly demeanor. Their beautiful coloration and small stature make them extra lovable, but they are facing some real trouble in their native range and it is estimated that there may only be around 2,500 individuals left in the wild. Efforts are being made by zoos and facilities to have a healthy population diversity under human care, and the Red Panda Network is taking the lead in protecting red pandas and their habitat.
Divided into two subspecies, Ailurus fulgens fulgens and Ailurus fulgens styani, the red panda is not actually related to the popular giant panda. While they are both found in Asia, the red panda is found in the mountains of Nepal, northern Myanmar, and central China. Red pandas and giant pandas do have shared characteristics, including having a majority of their diet being made up of bamboo, and an “extra thumb.” The extended wrist bone helps in grasping bamboo stems and tree branches. Despite their similarities, recent research has determined that red pandas are in the superfamily Musteloidea which also has species such as weasels, raccoons, and skunks, but they are placed in their own family, Ailuridea.
Red pandas are classified as carnivores, but they are definitely extremely vegetarian carnivores. Up to 95 percent of their diet is made up of bamboo, and they need to eat a lot of it. One individual can eat up to 20,000 leaves a day, and they have to consume so much because they are only able to digest about 24 percent of the bamboo that they eat. Along with bamboo, they have also been seen eating fruits, acorns, grasses, roots, and even the occasional insect or egg.
A day in the life of a red panda consists of sleeping for at least half of the day, which helps to conserve energy. They are an arboreal species and spend most of their life up in the trees, although even if you are in territories where red pandas are known to live, you might not ever spot one. Their chestnut red coloration allows them to camouflage perfectly with the moss that is found on the trees where they live, and their black stomach makes them even harder to see from below. They are more active in the early morning and late afternoon, and generally live a solitary life, until it is time to breed.
Network of Community and Conservation
The Red Panda Network (RPN) has become a world leader in red panda conservation. The organization was founded in 2007 by Brian Williams, and is the first nonprofit organization focused on saving red pandas and their habitat. RPN’s goals and vision is to have a secure, viable population of wild red pandas thriving in their historic range.
Since the start, RPN has now grown to not only make huge strides in saving red pandas and their habitat, but are now involved with the community and people living in Nepal, helping to empower them to establish wildlife corridors and governments to adapt policies to sustain a viable future for the people, the wildlife, and the planet.
The biggest threat to the red panda population is habitat loss. As the human population continues to grow, there is an increase in developing areas which includes creating projects such as roads, mining, agriculture conversion, and electrical lines that are causing habitat fragmentation and degradation. Forests are being cut down for timber, fuelwood, and bamboo which is depleting forest resources and their quality. The loss of the forests in South Asia is not only detrimental to the plants and animals that depend on them for survival, but will have a negative effect on people as well. We are seeing more and more the effects of climate change around the world, and trees and healthy forests are one of our biggest supports and solutions to combat global climate change.
Other big threats include an increase in livestock herding, which also increases habitat destruction, as forests are cut down to make space for sheds and grazing for their cows. With that herders have introduced free-roaming dogs to try and protect their livestock from predators, but the dogs then bring in diseases. Seven species of gastrointestinal parasites have been reported in red pandas, including canine distemper virus which is highly infectious and always fatal to red pandas. These roaming dogs have also been reported killing red pandas.
Today the Red Panda Network is taking huge strides to through community-based research, education, forest protection and restoration, and sustainable living to ensure a future for the red panda population.
Building the Future through Education
Unfortunately, in the communities in and around red panda habitat in Nepal, there are not always the best opportunities for education. Thankfully, one of Red Panda Networks main conservation initiatives is to help educate and spread awareness both globally, and locally. They provide workshops to schools where participants receive educational training about the importance of red pandas to the eastern Himalayan ecosystem. Many of those that go through the workshop are then hired on as Forest Guardians and are paid to monitor and protect red panda habitat, as well as educate communities. The payment they receive supports their families and their experience helps them build capacity for sustainable income and environmental stewardship.
Community-Based Monitoring and Research
In 2007, Red Panda Network created Project Punde Kundo, the first community-based red panda monitoring program that helps involve locals to get involved with red panda conservation, and learn about these amazing animals that share their home. Since the start, there have now been 150 local people trained up to be citizen scientists. In 2016, Red Panda Network collaborated with the Government of Nepal to complete the nation's first national red panda population and habitat survey. This extensive survey helped to evaluate red pandas throughout their entire range in Nepal, and identify existing and potential habitats.
Restoring and Protecting the Future
RPN is training people to fight back against poaching efforts by working alongside government agencies to conduct investigations. They work to patrol red panda habitats, remove traps and snares, and educate locals on the importance of red panda conservation. Since 2015, they have helped us decrease trap and snare presence in the PIT corridor of Eastern Nepal by 60%. They have also helped support sustainable livelihoods by creating nurseries in degraded forest areas for growing bamboo, and medicinal plants, which also help generate jobs and increase local incomes. The Red Panda Network has helped to establish 10 forest nurseries, restore 1,800 acres of degraded forest, plant 18,000 native seedlings, and support the livelihoods of over 1,000 families in Nepal.
What We Can Do
Red Pandas are what is known as an indicator species of the ecosystem in the Himalayan Broadleaf and Conifer Ecoregion. This area is one of the most biologically-diverse areas in the world that is home to many unique and threatened species including clouded leopards, Asiatic black bears, Assam macaques, and Asiatic wild dogs. There are many ways you can help get involved to help, whether it’s working hands on with the Red Panda Network, or right from your home, no matter where that is.
- Take an EcoTrip and see wild red pandas for yourself - RPN provides an intimate opportunity to experience the amazing culture and wildlife that make up Nepal. You get to stay at local homestay, participate in the community-based conservation, and get an exclusive guide to take you through the local culture and rural areas.
- Sponsor a Forest Guardian - You can help to provide training, salary, clothing, and gear for local active conservationists that are devoting their time to save red pandas and their habitat. Your sponsorship helps to protect red pandas and support a family at the same time.
- Look for repurposed items instead of buying new. - Buy only what you need, and look for pre-owned or repurposed items before purchasing something brand new. You can help cut down on the demand for resources, much of which come out of areas that are home to many endangered species, just by consuming less.
“Conservation in Action.” Red Panda Network, www.redpandanetwork.org/.
“Red Panda.” Smithsonian's National Zoo, 7 Jan. 2020, nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/red-panda.