The Red Panda - Nearly as Cute as the Giant Panda

Despite the name, the Red Panda is more closely related to skunks, raccoons and weasels than to the giant panda. Its scientific name is Ailurus fulgens which means 'shining cat'.

The red panda's habitat range varies in altitude from 2,200 to 4,800 metres. The temperature range is 10 to 25oC. It is found in the Himalayas from Nepal to China with its southern limits including northern India, Bhutan and northern Myanmar.

In Chinese, the giant panda translates as 'bear cat' and the red panda as 'small bear cat'. Other names for the red panda include fox bear, common panda, red cat, Himalayan raccoon or fire cat.

The red panda has several attributes that are similar to the giant panda.

  • It likes mountainous mixed deciduous and conifer forests. It also prefers dense understories of bamboo.
  • It eats bamboo leaves and stalks.
  • The wrist bone extends to form a 'false thumb'.
  • It cannot digest cellulose.

Although the red panda has been placed with the bear family (Ursidae) and the raccoon family (Prodyonidae), it has now been given its own genus – Ailurus. There are two subspecies – the smaller Western Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens fulgens) and the Styan's Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens styani or Ailurus fulgens refulgens). The Styan's has a darker coat (especially the face) and less pronounced facial markings. The western red panda is endemic to Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Assam areas. Southern China and northern Myanmar are home to Styan's red panda.

Flat Panda(56060)Credit: Wikimedia

The gentle red panda is secretive and solitary. It is arboreal by nature and slightly larger than a domestic cat. The fur is lustrous and a reddish-brown. It has a long, shaggy tail with a number of transverse yellow-red rings. This gives the animal good camouflage and helps in balancing. When the animal walks, it carries the tail horizontally behind the body. The black legs are short and he walks with a waddling gait. There is thick fur on the soles which insulates the paws from icy terrain. The paws also have scent glands. The body and tail measures 31 to 47 inches with 12 to 24 inches being the tail. Males weigh between 4.5 and 6.2kg. Females weigh slightly less. It has a double coat with the undercoat being dense and woolly. The outer guard hairs are longer and coarse.

The upper surfaces are reddish-brown and the undersurfaces a darker, blackish shade. The face is mostly white with reddish-brown 'tear marks' running down the face from the corner of the eyes to the mouth. The round head is medium in size with a black nose and very dark eyes. The ears are erect. The teeth are broad and the jaws strong to assist in eating the bamboo it is so fond of. The red panda makes several different vocal sounds.

The semi-retractable claws are strong and curved. It is able to grasp small branches, fruit and leaves. The false thumb helps it grasp stems with its forepaws. It pulls off the leaves with its teeth. Bamboo is poor in nutrients but more easily digested than many cellulose-rich leaves. It needs to eat large quantities of the more nutritious parts of the bamboo such as the leaves and tender shoots.

Red Panda eating bamboo(56059)Credit: Wikimedia - Author saska01

Because the diet is of such poor quality, the red panda has a very slow metabolism and spends almost all its time eating and sleeping In these respects it is like the koala. The red panda also eats grasses, acorns, fruits, eggs and berries, birds, small mammals and insects. In captivity, the red panda's diet often contains more meat than it would in the wild but this doesn't seem to be an inconvenience. It drinks by licking water from its paws. It rests most of the day, becoming more active in the late afternoon and early evening. It is a good climber, sleeping on tree branches or in hollow trees during the day. Again like the koala, it may spread-eagle itself over a branch on hot days. When it is cold, it will sleep with the tail curled over the face. It is highly sensitive to high temperatures and cannot function over 25oC.

It cleans itself like a cat, licking the paws and rubbing the fur with its wet paws. It is also territorial and marks an area by urinating and by rubbing its anal gland on objects leaving secretions which have a musky odour. The pandas come together only to mate. Females may have more than one partner. A nest of grass and leaves are made in a rocky crevice or hollow tree. Gestation may last anywhere between 112 and 158 days. One to two cubs is normal although up to four may be born. When born, the cubs weigh around 120 grams. They are blind and a grey-buff colour. It is common for the mother to move cubs between several nests.

The eyes begin to open at 18 days and they are fully furred at 90 days. The cubs are weaned at 6 to 8 months. The family will stay together until the next litter is born. At 18 months the pandas are sexually mature and life expectancy is 8 to 10 years. There is a high death rate in the wild but under good conditions, red pandas may live to 15 years.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the red panda as 'vulnerable'. Factors threatening the red panda include hunting loss of habitat, competition from domestic livestock, inbreeding, fragmentation and deforestation, poaching. In some provinces of China it is already extinct. Local customs and cultural ceremonies use red panda fur and pelts for various purposes. For instance,it is considered good luck for newly-weds to wear a red panda hat. Natural predators include the snow leopard and marten.

Luckily the red panda is very happy in captivity and zoos generally have good success with breeding programmes. The red pandas reproduce quite readily. There is now co-ordination of breeding programmes through the International Studbook and the International Red Panda Management Group. Japan, China, Europe, North America, India and Australia are all parties to these groups. There has even been limited numbers released back into the wild with four being released in Darjeeling, India in 2003. This appealing and inoffensive little creature is much too attractive to be allowed to disappear.