The red panda is one of our precious endangered species. With only about 2500 left in the world, in 1996, the red panda was put on the international endangered species list. Their natural predators are the snow leopard and the yellow-necked marten (weasel). However, with hunting and habitat fragmentation, their greatest threat is man.
The red panda was first recorded by the 13th-century Chou dynasty. They were called Wah, reflecting the sound they made. The local people referred to them as poonya which was later translated as “panda.”
The red panda is also known as the firefox, firecat, red cat bear and lesser panda. It is from the Ailurus Fulgens (“shining cat”) species. Their classification has been confusing researchers for decades as they carry strong traits of both the panda and the raccoon. The red panda was finally given its own unique family classification in the 21st Century as the Ailuridae.
Resembling a raccoon, the red panda is an average of 2 feet (60 cm) in length, plus a long 1.5-foot (46 cm) tail. The average weight is 12 lbs (5 kg) and can get as large as 20 lbs (9 kg).
The red pandas have a striking appearance; their red body separates the face and tail which carrying the famous black and white striped rings of the raccoon. Their markings make it possible for them to blend well into their environment where red mosses and white lichens grow on the trees.
Like the giant pandas, they have long white whiskers and an extra “thumb,” which is an enlarged bone on their wrists and aids in gripping. The red panda is an excellent climber and spends most of his time in the trees. He only comes down to forage for food. They are mostly nocturnal and become most active at dusk and dawn.
The red panda resides along with the giant pandas in the high altitude, cool climates of the bamboo forests of Bhutan, southern and central China, the Himalayas, Myanmar and Nepal. In India, it is the state animal of Sikkim, and enjoys the status of the Darjeeling international festival’s mascot.
These herbivores dine primarily on bamboo leaves and shoots. The females can eat up to 200,000 leaves per day. To supplement the diminishing bamboo trees, the red panda occasionally eats acorns, berries, blossoms, various small plants and fungi, small bird eggs and insects. They have even been known to eat small animals such as rodents or birds.
The females bear their young in late spring and early summer after a gestation period of about 135 days. They prepare a nest in the hollow of a tree or a rock crevice where they produce one to four offspring, and remain with them for the first 90 days exclusively. The males have no role in the raising of the young. The young remain close to their mother for the first six to seven months at which time the mother will begin her new mating season.
The red panda reaches adult size by the first year and become sexually active by 18 months. Their lifespan in captivity is normally 8 – 10 years but they have been known to live up to 17.5 years. In the wild, their life expectancy is 8 years. The red panda is shy, quiet and except for mating and rearing their young, lives a solitary life.
Their lush fur is useful to the red panda in the cold climates they inhabit. They have long, soft, beautiful red-brown fur covering their entire body, including their feet. Their tail is functional to keep their balance in the tall trees and is used as a blanket to keep them warm during the cold months.
Since 1986, several breeding programs have been established in India. The Darjeeling zoo has been very successful in breeding and returning the young to the wild. They insert an electronic microchip in the juveniles when they are released. After a 6-month period of tracking them, they will remove the chips in the successful group and allow them to continue their natural lives. For those that appear to be having difficulty, they return them to the safety of the zoo.