I first got acquainted with the Red Panda not in the lush forests of North East India but in the hot and arid environs of Gujarat. In fact, I shared office space with it in Sundarvan, the small-animal park in Ahmedabad, as I embarked on a new journey as an environmental educator. How it reached all the way across the country to live a solitary life surrounded by humans is a story that I cannot clearly recollect. But the memory of starting the day by seeing the quiet furry creature with its bright curious eyes is as clear as if it was just yesterday.
For most of us, the word Panda immediately conjures up the image of the teddy bear-like black and white animal that bears little resemblance to this cat-like animal with reddish brown fur and a bushy tail. That is because the Red Panda is not a panda at all!
Scientists have determined that although they share a habitat (and a love for bamboo) with the Giant Panda, Red Pandas are genetically closer to skunks and raccoons. Their taxonomic position has long been a subject of scientific debate. For many years, Red Pandas were classified as part of the Procyonidae family, which includes raccoons and their relatives. But DNA studies show that Red Pandas represent a unique family that diverged from the rest of the Carnivore Order, and taxonomists place them in their own unique family: Ailuridae. Red Pandas are the only living member of the Ailuridae family. Ailurus fulgens fulgens, the scientific name of this rare and beautiful species literally means ‘fire-coloured cat’.
While the word Panda is a misnomer, the adjective Red is an apt description of this animal which has thick reddish brown fur. While its body is the size of a large cat, its bushy tail, marked with alternating red and buff rings, is almost as long as its body. Red Pandas have large, round heads and short snouts with big, pointed ears. Their faces are white with reddish-brown ‘tear’ marks that extend from the eyes to the corner of the mouth. Dense fur completely covers their feet which have five, widely separated toes and semi-retractable claws.
Their form is beautifully adapted for life in the mountain forests which are home to these animals. They spend most of their time on trees—sheltering, feeding, and sunbathing in winter. The structure of the feet and extremely flexible ankles which can rotate 180 degrees, help them in adeptly climbing headfirst down tree trunks. A special thumb-like wrist bone helps them get an extra grip when climbing.
The russet coat provides perfect camouflage among the clumps of reddish-brown moss and white lichens that cover the branches of the fir trees in which they dwell. The top cover of long coarse hairs, and the soft dense woolly undercoat provide a double layer of warmth. The long bushy tails which they curl around their body provide protection from the harsh winter winds. The tails also provide support and traction to these nimble arboreal acrobats. If a red panda starts to lean in one direction, it can swing its tail the opposite way to steady itself.
While different from their namesake in form and family, the one characteristic that the Giant Panda and the Red Panda share is that they are both bamboo eaters. But while Giant Pandas feed on all parts of the bamboo plant, Red Pandas feed selectively on the most nutritious leaf tips, and when available, tender shoots. Both pandas have a pseudo thumb, a modified wrist bone which helps to grasp the bamboo while feeding. In fact the name Panda is said to come from the Nepali word ponya, which means bamboo or plant eating animal. Bamboo is not a great food source for energy, and is hard to digest. In fact, Red Pandas digest only about 24 per cent of the bamboo they eat; so they need to eat 20 to 30 per cent of their body weight each day—about 1 to 2 kilograms of bamboo shoots and leaves. In one study, female Red Pandas were found to eat approximately 20,000 bamboo leaves in a single day. While bamboo constitutes about 95 per cent of the Red Panda’s diet, they may also forage for roots, succulent grasses, fruits, insects and grubs, and are known to occasionally kill and eat birds and small mammals.
Red Pandas are usually active at dawn and dusk, sleeping during the hottest part of the day. They begin their “day” by licking the front paws and then cleaning the fur all over the body in a cat-like, sitting posture in the tree; and then “washing” their face with fore and hind paws
Red pandas are solitary except during the breeding season. They scent-mark their territories using anal glands and urine, as well as scent glands located between their footpads. The scent is odourless to humans, but the Red Panda tests odours using the underside of its tongue, which has a cone-like structure for collecting liquid and bringing it close to a gland inside its mouth.
Red Pandas are generally quiet, but subtle vocalizations—such as squeals, twitters and ‘wha’ sounds—can be heard at close proximity. They may also hiss or grunt, and young cubs use a whistle, or high-pitched bleat, to signal distress.
It is the “wha” cry of the Red Panda which was the key identifying feature of this creature when it was first introduced in the Western world. In 1821, the English naturalist Major General Thomas Hardwicke made a presentation on the creature at the Linnean Society in London. In his presentation titled Description of a new Genus of the Class Mammalia, from the Himalaya Chain of Hills Between Nepaul and the Snowy Mountains, he described this hitherto unknown creature and suggestedthat the animal be called a “wha,” because as he explained It is frequently discovered by its loud cry or call, resembling the word ‘Wha’, often repeating the same: hence is derived one of the local names by which it is known. But Hardwicke’s paper was not published till 1827 by which time the French zoologist Frederic Cuvier published a description of the species along with a drawing. He claimed it was the most beautiful animal he had ever seen and named it Ailurus (from the Greek word ailouros, which means cat, and fulgens, meaning fire-colored or shining. Thus the species was named Ailurus fulgens fulgens.
In its Himalayan habitat, the animal is still known by its local names. In Nepal, it is called bhalu biralo while the Sherpas call it ye niglva ponva or wah donka.
Red pandas live in high-altitude, temperate forests with bamboo understories in the Himalayas, and other high mountains in Asia. They range from northern Myanmar (Burma) to the west Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces of China. They are also found in suitable habitat in Nepal, India and Tibet. Scientists have now identified two sub species: Ailurus fulgens fulgens which lives predominantly in Nepal and can also be found in India and Bhutan, and Ailurus fulgens styani (or Ailurus fulgens refulgens) which is primarily found in China’s Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.
Today this unique animal is endangered. As with most species in the wild, its habitat is under threat, with destruction of its nesting trees and food plants. The animals are often killed as they get caught in traps meant for other animals such as wild pigs and deer. They are also poached for their distinctive pelts. Conservation organisations are working with local communities to create awareness, and take steps to reduce the human threats to the fragile habitat of the beautiful fire cat which has its own special part in the web of life. The Red Panda Network, an international organisation focusing on this, encourages local people to become forest guardians to keep an eye on these creatures, track poachers, and replant bamboo in the forest.
18 September is marked as International Red Panda Day. A good time to learn about this Panda that isn’t a Panda!