The endangered red panda is so elusive and enigmatic that science is still not quite certain whether there are one or two different species of this petite, tree-dwelling mammal of the Himalayas, which shares a name (but little else) with that photogenic diva, the giant panda.
The genetic mysteries of the red panda, whose population has been shrinking dramatically, is just one reason why more research is necessary to better understand how this YouTube sensation contributes to the world’s complex biodiversity.
But it’s no mystery to Angela Glatston – whose telling Twitter handle is @RedPandaLady – why the world should care about protecting the red panda and its family pawprint: the chestnut-and-black hued mammal is the only living member of its lineage, the family Ailuridae.
Once lost, it would be lost forever, warns Glatston, a specialist with the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“It is unique. As the only member of the Ailuridae, it’s one distinct branch of evolution,” explains Glatston, who chairs the Red Panda Network. “If we lose red pandas, it’s like losing all the entire cat family in the world in one fell swoop.”
The red panda’s mysterious genetics are no surprise, given its penchant for privacy. The domestic cat–sized animal sleeps in trees, tightly snuggled into a thick fur blanket created by its bushy tail against the chill mountain air. The clever creature has even evolved fur tufts on its paw pads to protect against the cold and have better grip on mossy tree trunks and branches.
There is little mystery as to the cause of its presence on the IUCN’s list of endangered species: its preferred food – bamboo, which comprises about 98 percent of its diet – is being destroyed by human encroachment on its habitat, bringing deforestation and development. This is one of the largest factors behind a 50 percent drop in the red panda population between 1998 and 2015, says IUCN.
Population estimates now range from as low as 2,500 to no more than 15,000 red pandas remaining in the species’ home range that stretches across parts of Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar and Nepal. Fragmentation of its territory also exposes the red panda to human threats as it forages in search of bamboo.
Dogs and canine distemper, a viral disease that’s fatal for red pandas, are another significant risk as more people, including cattle herders with dogs, move into its shrinking areas of habitat.
The NGO Traffic suggests hunting and poaching are other significant threats to red pandas and, like IUCN, has urged greater research in order to preserve the species. Bhutan, India, Nepal and Myanmar are beginning to act to protect the red panda, says Glatston. “So there is an improvement… but not as much as I would like.”
In China, red panda numbers dropped by as much as 40 percent in the second half of the last century because of massive habitat loss, increased human activity and poaching, leaving an estimated 3,000 to 7,000 red pandas in China as of 1999.
Still, China could lead new conservation efforts, based on recent studies that buttress the argument for two separate species: the Chinese red panda (Ailurus styani) and the Himalayan red panda (Ailurus fulgens).
If Chinese authorities become seized with the idea of a Red Panda species of their own, they may become much more interested in protecting what is now considered a “secondary” species, behind, of course, the giant panda, says Glatston.
Besides, she points out, the red panda was the first to hold its name, being dubbed “panda” about 50 years before the scene-stealing giant panda – which is actually a bear.