The Red Panda, scientifically called Ailurus fulgens, is a small, arboreal mammal that greatly resembles a raccoon. It is much smaller in size than the black-and-white colored Giant Panda, with which it shares its name. It is slightly larger than a domestic cat. This animal has a gentle and shy temperament, and it spends most of its day asleep, with its tail wrapped snugly around its head to fend off the chilly conditions of its mountain habitat. It is mostly active from dusk to dawn. It is normally a solitary animal.
Some of the other names by which it is known are Lesser Panda, Bear-Cat, Panda Bear, Cat-Bear, Bright Panda, Fire Fox, Common Panda, Panda Chico, Nigalya Ponya, Panda Rojo, Panda Eclatant, Poonya, Petit Panda, Red Cat-Bear, Thokya, Sankam, Wokdonka, Wah, Ye, and Woker.
The Red Panda is divided into two sub-species, of which the A.f. Styani is found in the southwestern region of China in Yunnan and Sichuan, and the A.f. Fulgens, which is slightly smaller in size, is found in the Himalayan mountain ranges.
Its body is bear-like in shape. It has a thick reddish-brown coat on the upper part of its body, and a blackish one on the lower part. Its snout and ears are white, and it also has white markings on top of its eyes and the sides of its face. These markings are distinctive to every individual. They have a black nose and jet-black eyes. Its tail is long and bushy, with transverse light-brown or orange lines along its length. The limbs and belly are black. Their wrist bone is modified with a radial sesmoid bone, which is used like a thumb. This is an adaptation due to its bamboo diet. Their body length is 50 to 64 cm (20 to 25 inches), and their tail is 28 to 59 cm (11 to 23 inches). Males weigh around 3.7 to 6.2 kg (8.2 to 13.7 lb), whereas females weigh around 3 to 6 kg (6.6 to 13.2 lb). The average life span of this creature is 8 to 10 years. However, there have been some who have lived up to 15 years in captivity.
Its habitat ranges from the temperate forests of the foothills of the Himalayas from the western parts of Nepal, to Bhutan, India, northern parts of Myanmar, and the mountainous regions of the southwestern parts of China, in the Xizang, Yunnan, and Sichuan provinces. The altitude that they normally reside in ranges from 2,200 to 4,800 meters (7,200 to 15,700 feet).
Their habitat comprises cool, mountainous sub-alpine regions where there is not much fluctuation of atmospheric temperature. Fed by seasonal monsoons, the mountainous slopes are made up of a mixture of trees and plants such as deciduous hardwoods, fir, and rhododendrons, with an understory made up largely of bamboo, which is their main diet. Therefore, while the belt of its habitat stretches for thousands of miles, from the northern regions of India to China, it is a very narrow band which is ecologically fragile.
Their habitat expands during the periods when it is moist and warm, and contracts when the weather becomes dry and cool. Today, with increased urbanization and logging, their habitat has drastically reduced, and is just a remnant of the vast areas that it once used to be.
The diet of this animal consists mainly of bamboo. This kind of specialization is found to be highly unusual among mammals. Apart from the Red Panda, the Giant Panda, a small species of lemur that are found in Madagascar, and two species of bamboo rats (one of which is found in Brazil and the other in China), are the only other animals that are obligate bamboo feeders.
Bamboo is a giant type of grass which has tough leaves and woody stems. Since it comprises such high amounts of fiber that is indigestible, this grass is not only difficult to eat, but also hard to digest. Other herbivores like horses and cows, whose diet is made up of grass-like plants, have specialized teeth as well as special digestive systems. This enables them to derive as much energy as possible from the food they consume. Although the Red Panda does have large-sized teeth to masticate the bamboo leaves, it does not have any specialized digestive system. Scientists have found that the food that it eats is retained for just 6 hours, and it derives just 25 percent energy from this food. In fact, it often loses up to 15 percent of its weight on this kind of diet.
Therefore, this animal has devised a number of strategies in order to derive as well as conserve as much energy as possible. Scientists have discovered that it spends almost 13 hours of its waking time foraging for and feeding on bamboo. It is very selective, choosing the most tender of the young shoots and leaves, which it chews thoroughly in order to increase its digestibility, unlike the Giant Panda, which eats practically all parts of the bamboo apart from the roots, and hardly chews it.
When it is not feeding, this animal spends most of its time sleeping, curled up and tightly-wrapped within its bushy tail. This is another way of conserving energy as it results in lowering the metabolic rate. In fact, during the cold weather, it can lower its metabolic rate even further. These animals are basically nocturnal, which means they are most active during the night and asleep for most of the day.
This animal can reproduce once it is 18 months of age. It becomes fully mature at 2 to 3 years. It is a solitary creature most of the time, coming together only to mate. They mate with more than one partner in the mating season which lasts from mid-January to early March. The female makes the nest, which is usually located in rock crevices or hollow trees. The gestation period is 112 to 158 days. The cubs are born from mid-June to late July. They usually number from 1 to 4, weigh 110 to 130 grams (3,9 to 4.6 oz) each, and are blind and deaf when they are born. They open their eyes at about 18 days of age. When they are about 90 days old, they begin to eat solid foods, and are weaned by their mother when they are 6 to 8 months old. Males do not get involved in rearing the cubs.
An Endangered Species
This animal has become rare now and their numbers are continuing to decline. This is largely due to their specialized habitat, with bamboo plants being destroyed for agricultural use, logging, and fuel, which is obtained from the wood. Also, it is heavily poached to feed the fur and pet trades. Over the last 50 years, their population in China has decreased by 40%. The statistics in the western Himalayan regions are believed to be lower.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which is the main world authority on the conservation status of species, has classified this animal as 'vulnerable' in its Red List of 2008. This is because the global population of this animal is 10,000 with a declining trend, which makes it an endangered species. It is a protected species in all range countries, and hunting it is illegal. Other conservation methods and efforts differ from country to country.