Here’s a cute, little-known animal; the Red Panda, also known as the Lesser Panda.

Like many species it is under pressure from humans. Someday the Earth may be a lonely, impoverished planet to live on.

The red, or lesser, panda - Ailurus fulgens

Ailurus fulgens

The red panda (Ailurus fulgens, or shining-cat), which resembles a raccoon, live in the cool temperate bamboo forests in Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces in China, in the Himalayas, and in Myanmar. Locations with the highest density of red pandas include an area in the Himalayas that has been proposed as having been a refuge for a variety of endemic species in the Pleistocene.

Red pandas were once thought to be closely related to the giant panda, but genetics has shown they are more closely allied with the raccoon and weasel families. The animal is now considered a living fossil and only distantly related to the Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) , with which they share part of their range. Their common ancestor can be traced back to the Early Tertiary Period tens of millions of years ago, with a wide distribution across Eurasia.

In 2004, a tooth from a red panda species never before recorded in North America was discovered at the Gray Fossil Site in Tennessee. The tooth dates from 4.5–7 million years ago. In August 2010, archaeologists uncovered red panda fossil remains in Washington County in the US state of Tennessee. Although none are known to exist in the wild in North America today, it is believed the red panda thrived in the mountains of eastern Tennessee approximately 4.5 million years ago.

Slightly larger than a domestic cat, it has reddish-brown fur, a long, shaggy tail, and a waddling gait due to its short front legs. The average lifespan is 8–10 years, but individuals have been known to reach 15 years. They weigh between seven and 14 pounds. Their red-and-white markings blend in with the red mosses and white lichens that grow on the trees in which they live. Their soft, dense fur covers their entire body—even the soles of their feet.

Secretive and gentle creatures, adults are solitary except during mating season. They are generally quiet except for some twittering, tweeting, and whistling communication sounds. They have been reported to be both nocturnal and crepuscular, sleeping on tree branches or in tree hollows during the day and increasing their activity in the late afternoon and early evening hours. They sleep stretched out on a branch with legs dangling when it is hot, and curled up with its tail over the face when it is cold. They are very heat sensitive, with an optimal “well-being” temperature between 63 and 77 °F, and cannot tolerate temperatures over 77 °F.

Shortly after waking, red pandas clean their fur like a cat, licking their front paws and then rubbing their back, stomach and sides. They also rub their back and belly along the sides of trees or rocks. Then they patrol their territory, marking it with urine and a weak musk-smelling secretion from their anal gland. They search for food running along the ground or through the trees. Red pandas may alternately either use their forepaws to bring food to their mouth or place food directly into the mouth.

Like the Giant Panda, they cannot digest cellulose, so they must consume a large volume of bamboo to survive. Their diet consists of about two-thirds bamboo, but they also eat mushrooms, roots, acorns, lichen, and grasses. Occasionally, they supplement their diet with fish and insects. They do little more than eat and sleep due to their low-calorie diet. Their broad teeth and strong jaws allow them to chew bamboo’s tough leaves and stalks. The animals share another characteristic with the giant panda, they have a small, bony projection on their wrists, a “false thumb,’ that helps them grip bamboo stalks.

Reproduction: After a gestation of about 134 days, litters of one to four young are born. Young stay in the nest for about 90 days, remain close to their mother until the next mating season begins, and reach adult size at about 12 months. Adult red pandas lead solitary lives.

Conservation: Red pandas are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species because of habitat loss. Worldwide population estimates range from fewer than 2,500 individuals to between 16,000 and 20,000 individuals. Although red pandas are protected by national laws in their range countries, their numbers in the wild continue to decline mainly due to habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, and inbreeding depression.

Predators of the red panda include the snow leopard, martens (Mustelidae), and humans. If they feel threatened or sense danger, they may try to escape by climbing a rock column or tree. If they can no longer flee, they stand on their hind legs to make themselves appear larger and use the sharp claws on their front paws to defend themselves.

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. The relative importance of these factors is different in each region, and is not well understood.For instance, in India the biggest threat seems to be habitat loss followed by poaching, while in China the biggest threat seems to be hunting and poaching. A 40% decrease in red panda populations has been reported in China over the last 50 years, and populations in western Himalayan areas are considered to be lower.

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. Fewer than 40 animals in 4 separate groups share resources with humans in Nepal’s Langtang National Park, where only 6% of 660 sq mi is preferred red panda habitat. Although direct competition for food with domestic livestock is not significant, livestock can depress bamboo growth by trampling.

Small groups of animals with little opportunity for exchange between them face the risk of inbreeding, decreased genetic diversity, and even extinction. In addition, clearcutting for firewood or agriculture, including hillside terracing, removes old trees that provide maternal dens and decreases the ability of some species of bamboo to regenerate.

In Southwest 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, and in weddings the bridegroom traditionally carries the hide. The “good-luck charm” red panda-tail hats are also used by local newlyweds.

Because the red panda is considered a very attractive animal, and is not much larger than a house cat, it would seem to be ideal for a pet. Despite this, and despite reports that Indira Gandhi kept red pandas as pets when she was a child, there does not seem to have ever been widespread adoption of these animals as pets. Due to its listing in CITES Appendix I, obtaining a red panda as a pet would now be quite difficult. Interestingly, due to the red panda’s high levels of captive breeding and recent successful efforts of domestication by selective breeding of the red fox, domestication could be possible. However, because of their low tolerances for high temperature areas, the red panda if ever domesticated may not be suitable as pets in some areas or special care would be needed to keep them happy. Though there is growing interest in the general public of the availability of this animal as a pet, there does not appear to be any person or group attempting to domestic the red panda through any process including selective breeding. Domestication may also be a viable method of successful conservation though it should not be the only form.