The Mighty Red Panda
The royals of the himalayans
The Red Panda is the most majestic and important animal on this planet. This might sound like hyperbole, but on the following page, you will find more information that will surely lead you to the same conclusion.
The red panda lives in the himalayan mountain ranges, underneath the tallest peaks in the world. They're at home in the rhododendron forests of Nepal, Bhutan and Southern China. In between the big trees, bamboo shoots high into the sky. A quickly growing, always green plant, bamboo is the red panda's favourite food.
So they climb up and down the trees, out of reach of their predators, munching on bamboo leaves for up to fifteen hours a day. Unlike the other bamboo eater, the monochromatic bear, red pandas only eat the young leaves of the bamboo. This is the majority of their food, but it is not especially nutritious. So they have to eat half their own body weight in bamboo leaves a day. If they come across a bamboo leaf, they will eat it.
Other than eating bamboo, the red panda is also not passing up fruit when in season. If they come across them and don't have to fight anyone for them, pregnant females will also look to bolster their protein intake by grabbing some eggs and insects. In zoos, they are given moderate amounts of apples and grapes. However, the high sugar content can be bad for their teeth. The red panda is the only known non-primate that can taste artificial sweeteners.
Red pandas are easy going. Whenever they're not foraging, they are resting and sleeping up in the branches of the trees that are their homes. A panda can spend up to twenty hours a day sleeping. The red panda is crepuscular and mostly active in the twilight hours of morning and evening.
The panda tries to spend as much time in the trees as possible. Since the weather can get quite cold in the mountain winter, they are equipped with thick fur. That even extends to their paws - unlike many other mammals, red pandas have soles that are covered in fur, for additional grip and warmth. That is complemented with their most well known characteristic: The tail.
Red panda tails are instantly recognisable - as long as the rest of the body, very fluffy, and striped. The tail is used for balance, to keep the panda upright when climbing the trees, and can be used as a fluffy pillow when it's cold. On cold winter nights, the panda will curl up on a branch fork and bury their nose into the tail fur. However, on hot days they will walk out on a branch and let all four feet dangle in the breeze.
Despite featuring a striped tail and a masked face, the red panda is not related to raccoons or tanukis, nor are they related to the monochromatic bear. They have been described by european explorers half a century before said bear, so they are the original panda. It is not quite clear where the name comes from. It is rumoured that "panya" means "bamboo eater" in the local dialect. However, it's not quite clear what local dialect that is supposed to be.
However, red pandas (Ailurus fulgens) are entirely in their own family, Ailuridae. They are distantly related with other carnivorous mammals. Despite their largely vegetarian lifestyle, pandas are in the general category of Carnivora, like weasels, canines, cats and yes, in a roundabout way, even the monochromatic bear.
While their guts and teeth are partially adjusted to their fibre-rich diet, the rad panda still has the jaw set of a carnivore. For example, they cannot grind down the leaves and cannot masticate with their mouth closed. The gut is also not very good at digesting the bamboo, leaving a lot of the nutrition going to waste. It also means they have to poop constantly.
Due to the food requirements, red pandas live solitary lives in large territories, which they mark with the constant supply of poop. They only ever meet up for mating, and the pair quickly go their separate ways afterwards. The red panda is a solitary animal, and will not be seen in groups. Even in zoos, they get nervous when there are more than two in an enclosure.
The female panda will build nests in the trees for her cubs. The number of cubs is between one and three, but most commonly a female will give birth to two cubs. Most red pandas are twins. They spend several months with their mother. In the earlier weeks, the mother will move them around between nests to protect from predators.
Apart from humans, red pandas are predated by snow leopards from the ground and large birds of prey from the sky. While leopards can also climb trees, they do so much less gracefully and since they are heavier than pandas, they cannot follow to the thinner brnaches. Otherwise, the thick canopy of the trees will hide a panda quite well.
The part that makes you sad
The red panda's range from Nepal to Southern China is larger than central Europe. However, it is estimated that there are only less than ten thousand individuals of this unique and incredible species are left in the wild. Once again, it is not their life style that is the the species' issue, but climate change and habitat loss.
Wide roads built through their forests prevent pandas from meeting up, as they don't feel safe walking over the open area without the trees above to protect them. They are also poached on, as their beautiful tail and coat are sought after in the local culture, as a wedding gift. Lastly, people try to catch them to keep them as pets, which they don't enjoy at all. Alas, the red panda is at the same time the most huggable animal on the planet, while at the same time hating to be touched by humans.
The number of pandas left in the wild is a very wide guess. They have very good camouflage and it is quite difficult to spot them in the trees. So it is quite difficult to give proper estimations of their population. A few estimations go as low as less than 2'500 adult individuals. However, they thrive in zoos and are often bred successfully.
However, the non-profit Red Panda Network does amazing work to protect the red panda. They work in Nepal directly with the people that live by the forests where the pandas live, working with locals to protect the species. By employing local people, educating them and improving their lives, they give them a perspective outside of destroying the very forests they live in. They also aim to purchase entire forest areas to turn them into protected panda sanctuaries. Moreover, the Red Panda Network seeks to educate about the one and only panda.
The world is in a tough spot right now. However, it is and will always be better for having the Red Panda in it. They're unique, cute and an important species, not only in their area. I believe, if we can save the red panda, we can save ourselves.