Red Panda

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Despite their name, red pandas aren't actually closely related to giant pandas, but it wasn't until the last fifteen years that scientists settled upon just where red pandas fit on the evolutionary tree of life. It was clear that red pandas were members of the taxonomic group placed with bears, pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walrus), raccoons, and mustelids (weasels, skunks, otters, and badgers). The red panda is slightly larger than a domestic cat with a bear-like body and thick russet fur. The belly and limbs are black, and there are white markings on the side of the head and above its small eyes. Red pandas are very skillful and acrobatic animals that predominantly stay in trees.


It has reddish-brown fur, a long, shaggy tail, and a waddling gait due to its shorter front legs. It is a solitary animal, mainly active from dusk to dawn, and is largely sedentary during the day. Red pandas have a taste for bamboo but, unlike their larger relatives, they eat many other foods as well—fruit, acorns, roots, and eggs. Like giant pandas, they have an extended wrist bone that functions almost like a thumb and greatly aids their grip.


Relative Size

             The head and body length of a red panda measures 50 to 64 cm (20 to 25 in), and its tail is 28 to 59 cm (11 to 23 in). Males weigh 3.7 to 6.2 kg (8.2 to 13.7 lb) and females 3 to 6.0 kg (6.6 to 13.2 lb).


Did You Know

As a member of the Order Carnivora, the red panda is a carnivoran. But unlike most carnivorans, it's not actually a carnivore. That is, the red panda is a mostly an herbivore. It's actually one way in which the red panda is more like the giant panda than its genetic relatives: its diet consists almost entirely of bamboo leaves, plus bamboo shoots when in season, and the occasional fruit, flower, and (rarely) an odd egg or bird.


Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Mammalia
Order
Carnivora
Family
Ailuridae
Genus
Ailurus
Species
fulgens
Other Names

English
Red Panda, Lesser Panda, Red Cat-bear
French
Panda roux, Panda éclatant, Petit panda
Spanish
Panda Chico, Panda Rojo
Status

Red Panda is listed 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 due to the habitat loss throughout their range, for timber extraction, agriculture and development.


Population

Worldwide population estimates ranges between 16,000 and 20,000 individuals. In 1999, the total population in China was estimated at between 3,000 and 7,000 individuals. In 2001, the wild population in India was estimated at between 5,000 and 6,000 individuals. Estimates for Nepal indicate only a few hundred individuals. No records from Bhutan or Burma exist.


Habitat

Red pandas only live in temperate forests in the foothills of the Himalayas. The southern slopes of the mountains trap the water from seasonal monsoons, supporting forests of firs, deciduous hardwood, 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.


Range

Red pandas have a large range that extends from western Nepal to northern Myanmar. The species also lives throughout mountainous areas of southwestern China (Yunnan, Sichuan and Xizang provinces) at elevations between 4,900 and 13,000 feet.


Biology

The red panda’s diet is very unusual for a mammal and consists mostly of bamboo. When the weather is warm enough, they also eat insects and fruit. Although the giant panda eats almost every part of the bamboo plant (except the roots), the red panda only eats the youngest, most tender shoots and leaves. Their gut is not specialized to handle plant matter and can only extract about one quarter of the nutrients from bamboo, and food passes through their digestive tract quite quickly causing the animal to lose as much as 15 percent of their body weight during the winter. To cope with the lack of food during the winter months, red pandas have evolved several ways of meeting their energy demands including extremely slow metabolism, consumption of other foods such as roots and fruit as well as small lizards and bird’s eggs.

 Red pandas are generally solitary and territories of both sexes are marked with anal secretions. They mate on the ground but the female gives birth, usually to two young, within a hollow tree nest cavity. Red pandas have a long gestation period (roughly 135 days) for an animal that weighs only 11 pounds at maturity. Despite the amount of food that red pandas eat, they grow quite slowly, reaching adult size after 12 months. The young become sexually mature at 18 months. As a result of this, red pandas have a slow rate of reproduction and have a great deal of difficulty recovering from population declines.


Predators

Snow Leopards who go after adults -- and yellow throated martens, who prefer nesting cubs are the only real predators of the Red Panda along with Birds of Prey and small carnivores that prey on the smaller and more vulnerable cubs.


Threats

            The primary threats to red pandas are direct harvest from the wild, live or dead, competition with domestic livestock resulting in habitat degradation, and deforestation resulting in habitat loss or fragmentation. Deforestation can inhibit the spread of red pandas and exacerbate the natural population subdivision by topography and ecology, leading to severe fragmentation of the remaining wild population. In China the species is thought to have undergone a decline of around 40 percent over the last 50 years primarily due to hunting and poaching.  In south-west China, red pandas are hunted for their fur, especially for the highly valued bushy tails from which hats are produced. In these areas, the fur is often used for local cultural ceremonies.


Conservation Measures

The red panda is protected in all of the countries in which it is found with the exception of Myanmar, and it is listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Currently there is a Global Species Management Plan (GSMP) for Red Pandas held in zoos around the world. The aims of the GSMP are to contribute both directly and indirectly to Red Panda conservation by: providing a genetically and demographically sustainable and behaviorally competent back-up population for the wild population; holding the potential to supply individuals for genetic or demographic supplementation or reintroduction programmes; educating and the raising of public awareness of Red Panda, its uniqueness and conservation needs; and providing financial, technical, scientific and other support and expertise to the planning and implementation of in situ conservation and research.


References


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