Why Red Pandas Are Endangered

And what we can do to help them.

Red panda in wild gazes into camera while munching on plant
There are fewer than 10,000 red pandas left in the wild.

Nguia Charrad / EyeEm / Getty Images

 

Popular and distinctive, known for their kitten-like faces and ruddy coats, red pandas are endangered with their numbers decreasing. Not closely related to iconic giant pandas, red pandas are found only in isolated mountainous areas in the high forests of Asia. Because their populations are fragmented, it’s difficult to know for sure how many red pandas there are, but the WWF estimates there are fewer than 10,000 left in the wild.

Red pandas are members of the family, Ailuridae. French zoologist Frédéric Cuvier described the western red panda in 1825, 48 years before the giant panda was classified. Saying it was the most beautiful animal he had ever seen, he named it Ailurus, meaning “fire-colored cat.”

Red pandas only live in small, mountain territories in Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, and Nepal. In a 2020 comprehensive genetic study, researchers found that Chinese red pandas and Himalayan red pandas were two distinct species. They said the Himalayan red panda needs more urgent protection because of its lower genetic diversity and smaller population size.

Threats

Habitat loss is the main threat to the red panda’s survival. Human growth in the area, combined with climate change has led to the fragmentation and loss of livable land. In addition, the red panda has faced dangers from hunting and poaching.

Habitat Loss and Deforestation

Red pandas live in high-altitude forests where they prefer to be near water. They are mostly active at dusk and dawn, and they sleep during most of the day. Their ruddy fur helps them blend into the canopy of fir trees where branches are covered with reddish-brown clumps of moss and white lichens.

Red panda relaxes on tree branch with limbs hanging
Red pandas mostly sleep during the day. Freder / Getty Images 

About 98% of a red panda’s diet is bamboo. But unlike giant pandas that eat almost all parts of the plant, red pandas are picky and only dine on the nutrient-rich tips of the leaves and the tasty, tender shoots.

Finding enough bamboo is difficult as the red panda’s habitat keeps shrinking. When people move into the red panda’s area, they clear forests for housing and commercial development, for farming and mining. They build roads and let livestock graze in forests where they compete with red pandas for bamboo. Often habitat also is degraded because of commercial logging.

Natural disasters such as landslides, floods, cyclones, and heavy snow and rainfall all have destroyed habitat. Forest fires, invasive plant species, and issues with bamboo flowering and the death of the plant have had effects on the red panda’s habitat, says the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Species of bamboo are impacted by forest fires and other environmental changes. As people move into the area, they often collect bamboo, leaving less for red pandas to eat. As habitat diminishes and there is reduced canopy cover overhead, seedlings don’t survive and bamboo doesn’t thrive.

Physical Threats

Red pandas also face threats from hunting and poaching. The IUCN reports that illegal poaching and smuggling appears to be increasing, as hunters take the animals for their distinctive pelt and meat. The WWF says red panda fur hats have been found for sale in Bhutan.

Some hunters who work in the wildlife trade capture red pandas and sell them as illegal pets. Sometimes, red pandas are caught in traps that were intended to catch other animals, such as wild pigs and deer. 

When people bring livestock into the red panda’s habitat, they protect them with dogs. The dogs attack pandas, and if they are not vaccinated, the dogs can carry canine distemper, which is fatal to the red panda. Spillover of canine distemper is already well-documented in other species, such as the Indian fox and the Amur tiger.

What We Can Do 

Although the red panda is endangered, steps are being made to save the species and its habitat. According to the IUCN, China has 46 protected areas, covering about 65% of the species’ habitat in the country. There are at least 19 protected areas in India, five in Bhutan, and three in Myanmar.

The Red Panda Network is a nonprofit organization that protects red pandas and their habitat. They work with local community groups to establish wildlife corridors, train “forest guardians” to raise awareness about red pandas, and work with villagers to establish protected areas.

The group also monitors panda populations and researches how they are changing over time. You can get involved by spreading awareness, donating and fundraising, taking part in ecotourism, and working against the red panda trade.

The WWF is also working to protect red pandas and their habitats. Because more than a third of potential habitat is in Nepal, the group works with yak herders and other groups there to lower their impact on the red panda’s habitat. They have encouraged herders to sell briquettes made of yak dung. They can be used for fuel instead of cutting down red panda habitat and are an alternative source of income.

The WWF also monitors red pandas and their habitat across India, Nepal, and Bhutan to help understand the species. You can help by pledging to protect the planet or by making a donation to virtually adopt a red panda.