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Red panda

Related subjects: Mammals

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Red Panda
Conservation status

Vulnerable ( IUCN 3.1)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Subclass: Eutheria
Superorder: Laurasiatheria
Order: Carnivora
Suborder: Caniformia
Superfamily: Musteloidea
Family: Ailuridae
Genus: Ailurus
F. Cuvier, 1825
Species: A. fulgens
Binomial name
Ailurus fulgens
F. Cuvier, 1825
  • A. fulgens fulgens
  • A. fulgens refulgens
  • A. fulgens styani
Red Panda range

The Red Panda, also called the Firefox or Lesser Panda (taxonomic name: Ailurus fulgens, "shining cat"), is a mostly herbivorous mammal, specialized as a bamboo feeder. It is slightly larger than a domestic cat.

The Red Panda is endemic to the Himalayas, ranging from Nepal in the west to China in the east. It is also found in northern India, Bhutan and northern Myanmar. Their population continues to decline due to habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, and inbreeding depression.

Common names


Thomas Hardwicke introduced this animal as "Red Panda" to Europeans in 1821. The Western word "Panda" has no conclusive source. The names "nigalya ponya" and "nyala ponga" are often mentioned, and are said to mean "eater of bamboo" in Nepali. However, none of these words appear in Nepali-English dictionaries. The Red Panda is also known as the Wah because of its distinctive cry, and has been called a Cat Bear because it was thought to be related to a small bear and washes itself like a cat by licking its entire body. Other names include Lesser Panda, Bear Cat, Bright Panda, Common Panda, Fire Fox, Red Fox, Fox Bear, Himalayan Raccoon, Cokoloaca Pigara, Gambawarella, Nigalya Ponya, Panda Chico, Panda Éclatant, Petit Panda, Poonya, Crimson Ngo, Red Cat, Sankam, Small Panda, Thokya, Wokdonka, Woker and Ye.


The taxonomic classification of the Red Panda has been controversial since it was discovered. Frédéric Cuvier (1825) initially described the Red Panda as a close relative of the Raccoon ( Procyonidae) even though he gave it the name Ailurus based on superficial similarities with domestic cats. At various times it has been placed in Procyonidae, Ursidae, with Ailouropoda in Ailuridae, and in its own family, Ailuridae. This uncertainty comes from difficulty determining whether certain characteristics of Ailurus are phylogenetically conservative or are derived and convergent with species of similar ecological habits.

Evidence based on the fossil record, serology, karyology, behaviour, anatomy, and reproduction reflect closer affinities with Procyonidae than Ursidae. However, ecological and foraging specializations and distinct geographical distribution in relation to modern Procyonids support classification in a separate family ( Ailuridae).

Recent molecular- systematic DNA research also places the Red Panda into its own independent family Ailuridae. Ailuridae are in turn part of a trichotomy within the broad superfamily Musteloidea that also includes the Mephitidae (skunks) and the Procyonidae (raccoons) + Mustelidae (weasels).

It is not a bear, nor closely related to the giant panda, nor a raccoon, nor a lineage of uncertain affinities. Rather it is a basal lineage of musteloid, with a long history of independence from its closest relatives (skunks, raccoons, and otters/weasels/badgers).
—Flynn et al., Whence the Red Panda, p197

The Red Panda and Giant Panda are only very distantly related by remote common ancestry from the Early Tertiary Period. The common ancestor can be traced back to tens of millions of years ago with a wide distribution across Eurasia. Fossils of the Red Panda have been unearthed from China in the east to Britain (Parailurus anglicus) in the west (Hu, 1990,Ro), and most recently a handful of fossils (Pristinailurus bristoli, Miocene, considered to be a new genus and species of the Red Panda) have also been discovered in North America.

There are two extant subspecies of Red Panda: the Western Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens fulgens) that lives in the western part of its range, and the somewhat larger Styan's Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens styani) that lives in the east-northeastern part of its range. The Western Red Panda has lighter pelage, especially in the face, while the Styan's Red Panda has more dramatic facial markings. The effective population size in the Sichuan population is larger and more stable than that in the Yunnan population, implying a southward expansion from Sichuan to Yunnan.

Biology and behaviour

Red Panda on a tree

Physical characteristics

The Red Panda is 79 to 120 cm (31 to 47 in) long, including the tail length of 30 to 60 cm (12 to 24 in). Males weigh 4.5 to 6.2 kg (10 to 14 lb); females 3 to 4.5 kg (7 to 10 lb). It has long, soft reddish-brown fur on its upper parts, blackish fur on its lower parts, and a light face with tear markings and robust cranial- dental features. The light face has white badges similar to those of a raccoon, but each individual can have distinctive markings. Its roundish head has medium-sized upright ears, a black nose, and very dark eyes: almost pitch black. Its long bushy tail with six alternating yellowish red transverse ochre rings provides balance and excellent camouflage against its habitat of moss- and lichen-covered trees. The legs are black, short with thick fur on the soles of the paws hiding scent glands and serving as thermal insulation on snow-covered or ice surfaces.

The Red Panda is specialized as a bamboo feeder with strong, curved and sharp semi-retractile claws standing inward for grasping of narrow tree branches, leaves and fruit. Like the Giant Pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), it has a “false thumb” that is an extension of the wrist bone.


Red Panda sleeping
Sounds of Red Panda chirping

Red Pandas are crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk) and live in the slopes of the south of the Himalayas and the mountainous forests of the southwest of China and northeastern India, at altitudes of up to 4,800 meters, and generally do not venture below 1,800 meters. They are sedentary during the day resting in the branches of trees and in tree hollows and increase their activity only in the late afternoon and/or early evening hours. They are very heat sensitive with an optimal “well-being” temperature between 17 and 25°C, and cannot tolerate temperatures over 25°C. As a result, Red Pandas sleep during the hot noontime in the shady crowns of treetops, often lying stretched out on forked branches or rolled up in tree caves with their tail covering their face.

Red Panda standing

Red Pandas are very skillful and acrobatic animals that live predominantly in trees. They live in territories, frequently alone, and only rarely live in pairs or in groups of families. They are very quiet except for some twittering and whistling communication sounds. They search for food at night, running along the ground or through the trees with speed and agility and, after finding food, use their front paws to place the food into their mouths. Red pandas drink by plunging their paw into the water and licking their paws. Predators of Red Pandas are snow leopards ( Uncia uncia), martens ( Mustelidae) and humans. The species has also faced a great deal of human-induced habitat destruction.

Red Pandas begin their daily activity with a ritual washing of their fur by licking their front paws and massaging their back, stomach and sides. They also scrub their back and belly along the sides of trees or a rock. They then patrol their territory, marking it with a weak musk-smelling secretion from their anal gland and with their urine.

If a Red Panda feels threatened or senses danger, it will often try to scamper up into an inaccessible rock column or a tree. If they can no longer flee, they stand up on their hind legs, which makes them appear somewhat more daunting and allows them the possibility of using the razor-sharp claws on their front paws, which can inflict substantial wounds.


Red Pandas eating bamboo

The Red Panda eats mostly bamboo. Like the Giant Panda, it cannot digest cellulose, so it must consume a large volume of bamboo to survive. Its diet consists of about two-thirds bamboo, but they also eat berries, fruit, mushrooms, roots, acorns, lichen, grasses, and they are known to supplement their diet with young birds, fish, eggs, small rodents, and insects on occasion. In captivity they will readily eat meat. Red Pandas are excellent climbers and forage largely in trees. The Red Panda does little more than eat and sleep due to its low-calorie diet.

Red Panda gnawing on an exfoliated bamboo bush

Bamboo shoots are more easily digested than leaves and exhibit the highest digestibility in the summer and autumn, intermediate in the spring, and low in the winter. These variations correlate with the nutrient contents in the bamboo. The Red Panda poorly processes bamboo, especially the cellulose and cell wall components. This implies that microbial digestion plays only a minor role in its digestive strategy. The transit of bamboo through the red panda gut is very rapid (~2–4 hours). In order to survive on this poor-quality diet, the Red Panda has to select high-quality sections of the bamboo plant such as the tender leaves and shoots in large quantities (over 1.5 kg {3 lbs} of fresh leaves and 4 kg {9 lbs} of fresh shoots daily) that pass through the digestive tract fairly rapidly so as to maximize nutrient intake (Wei et al., 1999).

Studies in 2008 showed that the red panda can taste artificial sweetners such as aspartame, the only known non-primate to be able to do so.


Red Panda cubs playing

The Red Panda is a solitary animal, usually seeking a partner only for mating from the end of December to the middle of February. After a gestation period of 112 to 158 days the female gives birth to one to four blind cubs weighing 110-130 g. This occurs between the end of May to the beginning of July. A few days before the birth the female begins to collect material, such as brushwood, grass and sheets, to use for the nest. The nest is normally located in a hollow tree or a rock column.

After the birth the mother cleans the cubs and in this way can immediately recognize each by knowing its smell. After one week the mother leaves the nest to clean herself. The cubs start to open their eyes about 18 days later, but not fully until 30 to 40 days. The eyes are first grey, and after six weeks slowly start to turn dark in colour, becoming fully darkened in about 70 days. The new litter remains at the nest for twelve weeks. After they leave the nest they will remain with their mother, weaning around 6–8 months of age.

The cubs will stay with their mother until the next cubs are born the following summer. The males only very rarely help with the raising of the new generation, and only if they live in pairs or in small groups. Red Pandas start to become sexually mature at about 18 months of age and are fully mature at 2–3 years. Their average lifespan is 8 – 10 years but can reach a maximum of 15 years.


The primary threats to Red Pandas are direct harvest from the wild (live or dead), competition from domestic livestock resulting in habitat degradation, and deforestation resulting in loss of habitat and habitat fragmentation. The relative importance of these factors is different in each region, and is not well understood. For instance, in India the biggest threat seems to be habitat loss followed by poaching, while in China the biggest threat seems to be hunting and poaching. A 40% decrease in Red Panda populations has been reported in China over the last 50 years, and populations in western/Himalayan areas are considered to be lower.

Deforestation can inhibit the spread of Pandas and exacerbate the natural population subdivision by topography and ecology, leading to severe fragmentation of the remaining wild population. For example, less than 40 animals in 4 separate groups share resources of a preserve in Nepal with humans (only 6% of its 1710 km² is preferred Red Panda habitat). Although direct competition for food with domestic livestock is not significant, livestock can depress bamboo growth by trampling. Small groups of animals with little opportunity for exchange between them face the risk of inbreeding, decreased genetic diversity, and even extinction. In addition, clearcutting for firewood or agriculture removes old trees that provide maternal dens, and decreases the ability of some species of bamboo to regenerate. Agricultural terracing is also having a detrimental effect on the former Red Panda habitat in Nepal.

In southwest China, Red Pandas are hunted for their fur, especially for their highly-valued bushy tails from which hats are produced. In these areas, their fur is often used for local cultural ceremonies, and in weddings the bridegroom traditionally carries the hide. The "good-luck charm" Red Panda-tail hats are also used by Chinese newlyweds.

Until recently, Red Pandas were captured and sold to zoos. Glatston reports that "in International Zoo News, Munro (1969) reported he personally had handled 350 Red Pandas in seventeen years." Thanks to CITES this number has decreased substantially in recent years, but poaching continues and Red Pandas are often sold to private collectors at exorbitant prices. In some parts of Nepal and India, the Red Panda is kept as a pet.

Red Pandas have a naturally low birth rate (usually single or twin births per year), and a high death rate in the wild.


The Red Panda has been confused with other animals

Red Pandas are classified as vulnerable in the IUCN Red List, and are included under CITES Appendix I. Reliable population numbers are hard to find, partly because other animals have been mistaken for the The Red Panda. For instance, one report from Myanmar stated that Red Pandas were still fairly common in some areas, and was accompanied by a photograph of a “Red Panda” as proof. The photograph in question depicted a species of civet. The population was estimated at less than 2,500 individuals in 1999, and between 16,000 and 20,000 in 2001. The IUCN Red List (2009.01) estimates the total population in China to be between 6,000 and 7,000 and the population in India to be between 5000 and 6000 in the wild, with wild populations still declining. However, these numbers are from surveys done in 2001 and earlier. Estimates for Nepal indicate only a few hundred individuals. There are no records from Bhutan or Myanmar.

Red Pandas are protected in all countries where they live, and hunting them is illegal. Beyond this, conservation efforts are highly variable between countries in which they are found:

  • Nepal has one of the highest rates of deforestation in Asia. This country has several protected areas ( Langtang National Park, the Dhorpan Game Reserve, Sagarmatha National Park, Makulu National Park, Annapurna Conservation Area, and the Rara National Park). However, some of these areas suffer from human pressure.
  • Bhutan is probably one of the most unspoilt countries in Asia. It still retains large areas of forest. As of 2009, there are nine protected areas (Jigme Dorji National Park, Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park, Royal Manas National Park, Thrumshingla National Park, Bomdeling Wildlife Sanctuary and Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary), but no records of Red Pandas are kept.
  • India (Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and West Bengal) has three protected areas with Red Pandas ( Khangchendzonga National Park, Namdapha National Park and Singalila National Park), and a coordinated conservation policy for the Red Panda.
  • Myanmar has a high rate of deforestation and no protected areas.
  • China has several protected areas with Red Pandas (Wolong National Park, the Tangjiahe Reserve, and the Medogo Wanglang Reserve and National Park).


Red Panda in the Munich Zoo.

Red Pandas are quite successful in captivity, and are common in zoos around the world. In 1992 there were more than 300 individuals distributed in 85 zoos. In 2001 there were 182 individuals in North America alone, and by 2006 there were 511 individuals of subspecies fulgens in 173 institutions, and 306 of subspecies refulgens (=styani) in 81 institutions.

There are several regional captive breeding programs ( SSP in North America, EEP in Europe, Australia, India, Japan and China), all of which are coordinated through the International Studbook (currently managed at the Rotterdam Zoo), and the International Red Panda Management Group. In 2009, Sarah Glass, curator of Red Pandas and special exhibits at the Knoxville Zoo, was named the coordinator for the North American Red Panda Species Survival Plan (SSP). The Knoxville zoo has the largest number of captive Red Panda births in the Western Hemisphere (93 as of September 2009). Only the Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands (which currently maintains the international studbook) has had more captive births.

Recent successes in Red Panda captive breeding include:

  • Twins in 2008 and triplets on June 11, 2009 at the Red River Zoo, in Fargo, North Dakota.
  • Twins in 2008 and Quadruplets in 2009 at the Denver zoo.
  • Twins in 2007 and 2008, and another birth in 2009 at the Valley Zoo in Edmonton.
  • The Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park at Darjeeling successfully released four captive bred pandas to the wild in 2003 (two in August and two in November).

Plans to reintroduce two more pandas to the wild in the spring of 2008 were evidently canceled or delayed, as the releases are not recorded in the studbook as of May 2009.

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