The Red Panda is a mammal species that is native to the eastern Himalayas and southwestern China and is found in India, Nepal, Bhutan, and the northern mountains of Myanmar and southern China. Its scientific name is Ailurus fulgens. In India, it is found in Sikkim, western Arunachal Pradesh, Darjeeling district of West Bengal, and Meghalaya. It is an Endangered species in the IUCN Red List and under Schedule-I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, as its population in the wild is estimated to be significantly less, and it is continuously declining due to habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, and now climate change. The red panda is given the highest legal protection compared with the other threatened species. Since 2005, WWF-India has been working in the eastern Himalayan region to conserve this species.
Despite its name being Red PANDA, it is not closely related to the giant panda we very fondly know. The red panda is slightly large than a domestic cat with a bear-like body and thick tanned fur. Red pandas are very skillful and energetic animals that predominantly stay in trees. It thrives best at 2,100-4,800m in mixed deciduous and conifer forests with dense bamboo cover. Nearly 50% of the red panda’s habitat is in the Eastern Himalayas. The name panda is derived from the Nepali word ‘pony,’ which means bamboo or plant-eating animal.
Poor land management practices, various diseases, and poaching remain the current threats to red pandas. Still, climate change is among the factors that increase habitat loss and its fragmentation and habitat degradation. A further increase in the global temperatures could make these red pandas and the plants and animals that live in that range more vulnerable.
Red pandas survive mainly on a bamboo diet. Global warming could cause bamboo species in lower altitudes to move to higher elevations, replacing the bamboo type that these pandas eat. Red pandas are facing the destruction of their habitat due to climate change. As the rising temperatures and climate change warm the habitat area of these red pandas, they have to move to the higher elevation and lose the habitat faster and won’t be able to adapt to the rate of climate change.
The main threats to red pandas include direct harvest from the wild, either live or dead, competition with domestic animals or livestock, which results in habitat degradation. The harvesting of forest resources and infrastructure development due to the tremendous population rise lead to habitat destruction and fragmentation. However, there’s no direct competition for food; the animals can slow down the bamboo growth by walking over it. The Red pandas generally stay away from areas close to human settlements and areas disturbed by livestock.
Another threat is deforestation, due to which there is habitat loss or fragmentation. The habitat of the red panda is not protected, and the increasing human activities in the local forests are affecting them; and if these forests are not secured, we can say that the red pandas do not have a secure future in this changing climate. This changing climate leads to changing rainfall patterns, which can lead to an increased risk of forest fires.
Deforestation can constrain the spread of red pandas and worsen the division of the natural population by topography and ecology, which will lead to severe fragmentation of the remaining wild population. The fragmentation of these red pandas gives rise to many problems in these animals, like they face risks of inbreeding due to fewer individuals in that area, which leads to decreased genetic diversity, and then in some period, it can even lead to extinction. Some human activities like clearing some tree cover for firewood or agriculture or terracing on the hillside can decrease some bamboo species’ ability to regenerate. Another issue is that the red panda has a low birth rate and a high death rate in the wild, which intensifies why they should be protected and conserved.
The red pandas are hunted for their fur and particularly for their bushy tails, which are of high value. Long ago, the red pandas were captured to be sold to the zoos, but now due to CITES, this zoo harvest has decreased to a large extent, but poaching of these animals continues. In some parts, red pandas are often sold to individuals personally at very high prices. And in some regions, these red pandas are kept as pets. The changes in the climate cause change in the habitat range and also the plant and animal distributions. So all the threats should be considered while planning any mitigation strategies. The relation and importance of these factors are different in each region and are not well understood for every distinct area. For example, in India, the biggest threat appears to be habitat loss followed by poaching, while in China, the biggest threat is hunting and poaching.
The red pandas are a key indicator species for the Himalayan ecosystem, and preserving this species depends on the diversity and abundant food supply. Few steps like planting bamboo and educating the public on using the alternatives for energy can be taken to avoid further destruction of this species’ habitat. Efforts are being taken to monitor the red pandas and encourage community involvement in decreasing the human impact on this species’ habitat. Government and high-level officials are taking important policy decisions to strengthen the forest management and ensure that they keep a healthy and secure habitat for the red panda.