For as long as I can remember the Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens) has been a favourite of mine. With its beautifully contrasting coat, and long bushy tail, it is easy to see why I found them so appealing. Unfortunately most of my zoo visits ended in me staring high up in to a tree to see a small ball of red fluff, snuggled up with its ringed tail wrapped around its body!
HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION
The Red Panda is found through parts of the mountainous Himalayas, from Nepal to China, and is endemic to the temperate montane rainforests where it spends much of its day in the treetops. The mixed deciduous and conifer forests provide ample cover and low-lying bamboo, and at an altitude of 2,200 to 4,800m the climate keeps a rather constant temperature. The 2 subspecies are regarded by many to be divided by the Brahmaputra River.
With its rich, rusty red coat the red panda, also known as the Lesser Panda and the Cat Bear, is hard to mistake for any other species. Its legs and underparts are black, and its face has white markings to the muzzle, around the eyes, and around the ears. Its long, bushy tail is ringed with a light reddish-orange and they have an extended wrist bone that functions a little like a thumb, to help them grip their food. Its beautiful coat is seen at its best against a background of green foliage, but in its native environment the reddish brown moss and white lichens in the fir trees provide excellent camouflage.
DIET, BEHAVIOUR AND REPRODUCTION
Its main diet is bamboo, but it will also eat small mammals, fruit, eggs, berries, fish, birds and insects. So whilst it is classified as a carnivore, it is primarily an herbivore! With a lifespan of 8 - 10 years, some are lucky enough to live as long as 15 years. The red panda is both nocturnal (active by night) and arboreal (tree-dwellers).
One of the red pandas biggest threats is deforestation. As forests are cut down for farming or logging, the remaining populations are finding themselves fragmented (this can lead to inbreeding and potentially extinction). With cattle moving in and destroying their habitats, and illegal poaching, the red panda has an IUCN classification of Endangered. It seems ridiculous in this day and age that in certain parts of China they are hunted for their fur and tails, the former for ceremonies and traditions, the latter to make hats. Red Pandas have 1 - 4 young per year, coupled with a high mortality rate, it could certainly do without man making things difficult too!
OTHER NOTABLE FACTS
Some prehistoric red panda species include Parailurus anglicus and Pristinailurus bristoli. Fossilised red pandas remains have been found in the UK.
The red panda has 2 subspecies, the most common being the nominate Western Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens fulgens), and the other being the Styan's Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens styani). The latter is said to have a longer Winter coat and its pelage is darker, especially in the face. Overall Styan's red panda is the larger of the two.