One Life: Red Pandas

18 September 2021

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Red pandas live in the mountains of Nepal, northern Myanmar, and central China. 

The temperature in these regions is generally cool, and there is little annual variation. The southern slopes of the mountains trap the water from seasonal monsoons, supporting forests of firs, deciduous hardwoods, and rhododendrons.

A bamboo understory grows in these forests and provides the bulk of the red panda’s diet. However, these swaths of bamboo are only found in narrow bands throughout the red panda’s range. Thus, although red pandas are distributed across thousands of miles of territory, they are restricted to these small, fragile areas because of their dependence on the bamboo plants.

They are slightly larger than a domestic cat with a bear-like body and thick russet fur. It’s belly and limbs are black, and it has white markings on the side of the head and above its small eyes. Red pandas are very skilful and acrobatic animals and spend most of their lives in trees and even sleep aloft. Primarily a herbivore, the name panda is said to come from the Nepali word ‘ponya,’ which means bamboo or plant eating animal. 

Bamboo, bamboo, and more bamboo

Red pandas are actually carnivores, and they will occasionally eat eggs, small insects, birds and small mammals. The bulk of their diet is bamboo however. They can only digest around 24% of the bamboo that they eat, and so they have to eat 20-30% of their body weight in bamboo shoots and leaves. In fact, female red pandas have been found to eat around 20,000 bamboo leaves in a single day! To find all this bamboo, red pandas have to spend about half of their waking day foraging for it.

Panda, bear, racoon?

The red panda has many other names, including lesser panda, cat-bear, bear-cat, Himalayan raccoon, fox bear, and firefox. The red panda has been thought to be members of various different families since they were discovered in 1825. First, they were thought to be relatives of raccoons, and scientists have argued for years over whether red pandas are related to the giant panda. 

Although they share many similarities with giant pandas, such as their love of bamboo, they are not actually related. Recently, advances in DNA studies have led scientists to discover that red pandas have their own unique family, all on their own. Their closest relatives are all now extinct, having lived 3-4 million years ago. 

Clever wrists help them to grip

Like giant pandas, red pandas also have a modified wrist bone that acts like a thumb. This enables them to grasp bamboo when feeding, and to climb slippery trees. Like raccoons, they also dip their paws into water to drink. Red pandas are also one of the few animals who can climb down a tree head-first.

Their beautiful markings have a purpose

The red tear tracks that go from the red panda’s eyes to their mouth are thought to help keep the sun out of their eyes. And their beautiful white markings are almost luminescent, and so they help cubs to find their mother in the dark. 

A tail that is also a blanket

Red pandas live in very cold climates, and so their fluffy bodies and fur covered soles help to keep them warm. Their long fluffy tails also help too. When temperatures really drop, red pandas go into a deep sleep called a torpor. They wrap their tail around themselves as a blanket, and sometimes even as a pillow. In this torpor state they reduce their metabolic demands and lower their core temperature and respiration rate to conserve energy. 

Huffs, whistles and tweets

Red pandas are excellent communicators, they have several ways of marking their territories and home ranges. These include urine, secretions from anal glands, and scents from glands on the pads of their feet. They have also been known to use communal latrine sites to stake out territory and share information with others. 

They also use body language such as head bobbing and tail arching, and a variety of noises, such as the threatening ‘huff-quack’ and warning whistle. The males make a sound known as ‘twittering’ to signal their reproductive intent to females. 

Red Pandas really are amazing animals!

Red Panda conservation

The red panda is considered endangered, and they are on the IUCN’s Red list of Threatened Species. Worryingly, the population of red pandas has decreased by 50% over the past 20 years and there may be as few as 2,500 remaining in the wild.

The red panda is at risk due to a number of human threats. 

Rapid human population growth in the Eastern Himalayas is causing deforestation and the degradation and fragmentation of red panda habitat. In Nepal, 70 percent of red panda habitat lies outside of protected areas and is fragmented into 400 small forest patches.

Habitat is being fragmented by development projects including roads, hydro-projects, electric transmission lines and mining, as well as settlement, agricultural conversions and anthropogenic forest fires.

Fortunately, there are worldwide efforts to protect panda habitats, and some areas have been designated as protected areas. There are 20 protected areas in India, 35 in China, 8 in Nepal, and 5 in Bhutan. These initiatives will go a long way to help conserve these amazing animals.

Other threats to red pandas include disease transmission from domestic dogs, hunting and the pet trade. Red pandas are hunted for their beautiful fur, and sometimes they get entangled in snares intended for other animals. Sadly, these animals are also hunted for the pet trade. These wild animals do not make good pets, and they belong in the wild. 

Climate change is also causing more frequent droughts, snow falls, and floods, all resulting in shifting vegetation zones in the Himalayas, compounding the threats to red panda survival.

Read more:

One Life: Chimpanzees | One Life: Tigers