The Red Panda, Ailurus fulgens (“shining cat,” from a Latinized form of the Greek αίλουρος, ailouros, “cat,” and the participial form of the Latin fulgere, “to shine”)  is a mostly herbivorous mammal, slightly larger than a domestic cat (55 cm long). The Red Panda has semi-retractile claws and, like the Giant Panda, has a “false thumb” which is really an extension of the wrist bone. Thick fur on the soles of the feet offers protection from cold and hides scent glands. The Red Panda is native to the Himalayas in Nepal and southern China. The word panda is derived from Nepalese word “ponya” which means bamboo and plants eating animals in Nepal.
This taxonomic classification of both the Red Panda and Giant Panda has been under debate for many decades, as both species share characteristics of both bears and raccoons. However, they are only very distantly related by remote common ancestry from the Early Tertiary Period. Its 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 in the west (Hu, 1990), 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 Styans 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 Styans 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.
The Red Panda is classified as an endangered species. There is an estimated population of less than 2,500 mature individuals and this number continues to decline due to severely fragmented populations.
The Red Panda is also known as the Wah because of its distinctive cry. This name was given to it by Thomas Hardwicke, when he introduced it to Europeans in 1821. It is 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 Bear Cat, Cloud Bear, Bright Panda, Common Panda, Fire Cat, Fire Fox, Red Fox, Fox Bear, Himalayan Raccoon, Lesser Panda, Nigalya Ponya, Panda Chico, Panda Éclatant, Panda Rojo, Petit Panda, Poonya, Crimson Ngo, Red Cat, Sankam, Small Panda, Thokya, Wah, Wokdonka, Vetri, and Ye.
The most recent molecular-systematic DNA research places the Red Panda into its own independent family Ailuridae. Ailuridae are part of a trichotomy within the broad superfamily Musteloidea (Flynn et al., 2001) that includes the Mephitidae (skunks), Procyonidae (raccoons), and Mustelidae (weasel, mink, wolverine, badger); but it is not a bear (Ursidae) as is the Giant Panda.
Red Pandas are native to southeastern Asia, along a crescent formed by the Himalaya Mountains in Nepal, southern Tibet China, Bhutan, and northeast India, then east into the highlands of Myanmar (Burma), the Gongshan Mountains of Yunnan China, and the Hengduan Mountains of Sichuan China. The latter area is thought to have been a refuge for Red Pandas, as well as many other animals, during the last (Pleistocene) period of glaciation. The gorge of the Brahmaputra River, as it loops around the eastern end of the Himalayas, is considered a natural division between the two subspecies, although some suggest the A. f. fulgens range extends more eastwardly into Yunnan China. Red pandas used to have a broader distribution farther northeast into China and southwest into India.
Red Pandas inhabit climates of moderate temperature (10-25 °C) and prefers forested mountainous areas at elevations of 1,800-4,800 m, particularly temperate deciduous-coniferous forests with an understory of rhododendron and, of course, bamboo. They share habitat with another bamboo specialist, the Giant Panda, in China (Wolong Preserve). Red Pandas are cavity nesters, using rock dens and old hollow trees. They often spend the day drooped over a branch high in the trees, feeding more actively at dawn and dusk. There are also several captive red panda populations living in zoos around the world. The North American captive population is maintained under the Species Survival Plan (SSP), and contained 182 animals as of October 2001.
The Red Panda is quite long: 79-120 cm, or 31 to 47 in (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 (6 to 10 lb). Their average lifespan is nine to ten years but can reach a maximum of fourteen.
The Red Panda is specialized as a bamboo feeder (robust cranial-dental features, ~ 'thumb' adapted for grasping), with long and soft reddish-brown fur on upper parts, blackish fur on lower parts, light face with tear markings, and a light-ringed tail. 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. It has a bushy tail with six alternating yellowish red transverse ocher rings. The legs are black, short and bear-like with thick soles serving as thermal insulation on snow-covered or ice surfaces; and curved, sharp semi-retractable claws. The strong paws stand inward to facilitate substantial movement on narrow tree branches. Like the Giant Pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), it has a “false thumb” that really is an extension of the bone of the wrist, permitting them to seize fruit. Their multi-colored reddish fur provides excellent camouflage against its habitat of mats of moss and lichens that cover the trees.
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, 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 at all. 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 Pandas are very skillful and acrobatic animals that live predominantly in trees. They live in territories, frequently as loners, 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 it. 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 strong 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 are friendly, but are not helpless, and will resist if they feel threatened.
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, eggs, small rodents, and insects on occasion. In captivity, however, 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.
Bamboo shoots are more easily digested than leaves and exhibited 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 of fresh leaves and 4 kg of fresh shoots daily) that pass through the digestive tract fairly rapidly so as to maximize nutrient intake (Wei et al., 1999).
The Red Panda is a predominantly solitary animal, usually seeking compansionship 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, and always sometime between 4 p.m. and 9 a.m. during its activity period. 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 gray, and after six weeks slowly start to turn dark in color, becoming fully darkened in about 70 days. The new litter remains at the nest for twelve weeks. Fourteen days after they leave the safety of the nest, they start the process of learning to care for themselves but can only do so after about five months.
Near the beginning of the next mating, the cubs are abandoned by the mother. The males only very rarely help with the raising of the new generation, and only if they live in pairs or in a small groups. Red Pandas start to become sexually mature at about 18 months of age, but not fully until 2-3 years.
Endangerment and Production
Red Pandas are classified as endangered. No reliable numbers exist for the total population but it is very threatened due to the fragmentation of its natural habitats, their small numbers, and their food specialization needs. In southwest China the Red Panda is hunted for its fur and especially for its highly-valued bushy tail from which hats are produced. In the areas of China, where the Red Panda lives, their fur is often used for local cultural ceremonies and in weddings the bridegroom traditionally carries the hide. The 'good-luck charm' hats are used by Chinese newlyweds.
This, and the continuous clearing of the forests, has significantly reduced the population. It is now protected in all countries in which it lives, and the hunting of Red Pandas is illegal everywhere. Nevertheless, poaching continues and they are often illegally hunted and sold to zoos for dumping prices. The IUCN has mandated that small Pandas are a “threatened species“ since 1996, however it is now listed as endangered. It is very difficult to estimate the total population, yet one can assume that they cannot bear much more of a habitat change and that they are in danger of extinction due to the disappearance of the forests and the furtive hunting for its highly-valued tail and fur.
The SREL DNA Lab at the University of Georgia has listed several key major threat indications. A 40% decrease in Red Panda populations reported in China over the last 50 years, and those in western/Himalayan areas are considered to be in worse shape. Red Pandas have a naturally low birth rate (usually single or twin births per year) and a high death rate in the wild.
Natural population subdivision from topography and ecology have been worsened by human encroachment, leading to severe fragmentation of the remaining wild population. For example, 40 animals in 4 groups share resources of a preserve in Nepal with 30,000 humans (only 6% of its 1710 km² is preferred red panda habitat). Small groups of animals, with little opportunity for exchange between them, face the risk of inbreeding, decreased genetic diversity, and even extinction. The Red Panda is endangered due to habitat loss caused by deforestation, grazing, and farming. For example government-encouraged cheese production for tourists in Nepal contributed to fuel wood consumption for the factory, overgrazing by chauri (cattle-yak hybrid) impacting bamboo growth, and intrusion by herders and dogs (often attacking cubs). Agricultural terracing is having a detrimental effect on former Red Panda habitat in Nepal. The Red Panda is also poached for good-luck charm' hats for Chinese newlyweds, other fur clothing, and for the illegal pet trade.
The Chinese name of the Red Panda is 小熊貓; (pinyin: xiǎo xióng māo), meaning 'small panda' or, more analytically, 'small bear-cat', in which 'bear-cat' is the Chinese name for the panda. The Chinese name of the Red Panda is based on that of the Giant Panda, unlike English where the Giant Panda has been named after the Red Panda. The Red Panda is also sometimes known as hǔo hú (火狐), which literally translates as “fire fox”, a name which can designate either the red fox or the Red Panda. The Red Panda is also sometimes known as the 貓熊 (pinyin: māo xióng), meaning 'cat-bear'.
In the former Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim the Red Panda is the state animal and it is also the mascot of the Darjeeling international festivals.