Red panda on the red list

Paaru, the first red panda to be GPS collared in Nepal in September 2019. Photo: JAMES HOUSTON/RED PANDA NETWORK

Despite its increasing popularity among researchers there is still a big gap in knowledge about the habits and spread of red panda across Asia.

The red panda is not related to the giant panda in China, and is actually the only living member of the genus Ailurus and the family Ailuridae, even though they were earlier thought to be related to raccoons.

A recent review paper by Griffith University and University of Southern Queensland in Australia, Kathmandu Forestry College and the Red Panda Network shows that despite red pandas being studied for over 193 years, there is still a significant knowledge gap impeding its conservation in the wild and improved management of captive populations.

Lead author of the study, Sikha Karki at Griffith University, says: “We know that the red panda is an endangered indicator species of Himalayan forests. It is also associated with livelihoods as well as sentiments of local people. It is important to have a baseline to identify what needs to be done to save red pandas.”

Despite conservation efforts, red pandas are still threatened by habitat degradation, poaching, and illegal trade. The study shows that the animals need support of local communities if are to survive into the future. Reviewing 175 journal articles on red pandas, the first dating back to 1827, the study found most research was focussed on the biological aspect of the species and not so much the socio-cultural and environmental dimensions. Wild red pandas were less studied than captive populations, and the research was concentrated in China, followed by Nepal and India.

Most of the researchers were from non-range countries, and the study felt that it was important to empower and help build the capacity of local people and institutions to enable them to assist red panda conservation as citizen scientists.

“It is critically important to have more research related to identifying and prioritising ecosystem goods and services provided by red panda habitats to the local people and ways of establishing good governance,” says Tek Marasseni of the University of Southern Queensland, and co-author of the paper.

The study underlines the need for red panda research in underrepresented range countries, and assessment of climate change impact, ecosystem services of red panda habitat, bamboo distribution status, population estimation, and population dynamics, behaviour, and movement ecology.

As two new species of red pandas have been recognised recently, it is deemed important to further validate this with studies from underrepresented habitats. Their numbers are now down to less than 10,000 in the wild across Asia, and there has been more than a 50% population decline over the last three generations.

Nepal is estimated to have around 1,000 red pandas in 24 districts, and 70% of their habitat lies outside protected areas in the country, mainly in community forests. Nepal has prioritised red panda research and conservation since the 1980s, but the numbers of animals is still in decline.

Tim Cadman at Griffith University, another co-author of the study, says local communities need support to deter poachers, and find better alternatives to the illegal wildlife trade, especially important during the pandemic, when many people’s livelihoods are threatened.

“This review work on red panda research and conservation provides solid direction for its conservation and research measures in the coming days,” says Ang Phuri Sherpa, Nepal Country Director of Red Panda Network. “Nepal’s Red Panda Conservation Action Plan is important, but we also need partners in other range countries to cooperate in expanding research and maintain habitat connectivity.”

Sonam Tashi Lama is Program Coordinator at the Red Panda Network. 

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