Genus and Species: Ailurus fulgens
Red pandas are the only living member of the family Ailuridae, and their taxonomic position has been a subject of much debate. They were first described as belonging to the raccoon family in 1825, and this classification has been controversial ever since. They were placed in the raccoon family (Procyonidae) because of ecological characteristics and morphological similarities of the head, dentures, and ringed tail. Then, due to some agreements in the DNA, they were assigned to the bear family (Ursidae). However, most recent DNA research places red pandas into their own family: Ailuridae. Studies show that they are an ancient species in the order Carnivora, superfamily Musteloidea, and that they are probably most closely related to the group that includes weasels, raccoons, and skunks.
Long, coarse guard hairs cover the entire body and there is a soft, dense, woolly undercoat. Their unique coloring appears cryptic in the canopy of fir trees where branches are covered with clumps of reddish-brown moss and white lichens. Their face is predominantly white with reddish brown "tear tracks" extending from the eye to the corner of the mouth. Red pandas have long, bushy tails that help give this arboreal species balance. Their tails are marked with alternating red and buff rings.
Red pandas are the only Asian carnivore to have dense hair covering their feet; the nearest parallel is seen in the polar bear. Red pandas have five toes that are widely separated and semi-retractable claws. Their ankles are extremely flexible and rotate when climbing headfirst down a tree trunk. Red pandas climb well, using trees for shelter, to escape predators and sunbathe in the winter.
Adult red pandas weigh between eight and 14 pounds and are 22 to 25 inches in length plus a tail of 15 to 19 inches long. Males and females look alike.
They have large round heads and short snouts with large pointed ears. They share the giant panda's "thumb" – a modified wrist bone – that is used to help grasp bamboo when feeding.
In captivity, red pandas can be active anytime of the day but they are primarily crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk). On average they are awake about 45 percent of the day, and they are more active in cooler weather. This species has also adapted behaviors to regulate temperature, such as curling up into a tight ball when it is cold, which serves to conserve body heat and energy expenditure. When temperatures are warm, red pandas will stretch out on a branch and pant to lower their body temperature.
Red pandas are generally quiet, but at close proximity subtle vocalizations such as squeals, twitters and huff-quacks can be heard. They may also hiss or grunt. Predators include leopards and jackals. To escape predation, red pandas will climb trees or rocks, where they blend in with red lichen and mosses. Young cubs use a whistle, which sounds like a loud scream, to signal distress.
Red pandas are found in high altitude temperate forests with bamboo understories in the Himalayas and high mountains of northern Myanmar (Burma) and west Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces of China. They are also found in suitable habitat in Nepal, India and Tibet.
Red pandas are solitary except for breeding season, but in zoos most breeding pairs are housed together year-round for enrichment. In the wild, the home range of one animal is about one square mile.
Bamboo constitutes 85 to 95 percent of the red panda's diet. Because red pandas are obligate bamboo eaters, they are on a tight energy budget for much of the year. Unlike the giant panda, which consumes virtually every above-ground part of the bamboo culm, red pandas selectively feed on the most nutritious bamboo leaf tips and, when available, tender shoots. Red pandas feed like the giant panda by grasping the stem with their forepaws and shearing selected leaves off with their mouths. They may also forage on the ground for roots, succulent grasses, fallen fruits, insects and grubs and are known to occasionally eat birds and small mammals.
The Zoo's red pandas are fed bamboo throughout the day and variable fruits such as grapes, chopped apple and banana daily, as well as small leaf-eater biscuits.
Red pandas breed from January through March in the northern hemisphere and June through August in the southern hemisphere. Mating occurs on the ground, and gestation appears to include a period of delayed implantation which is usually 114 to 145 days, but may be as short as 90 days or as long as 158 days. It is believed that a long gestation period may be due to a slow metabolic rate.
Females create a nest in tree holes, branch forks, tree roots or bamboo thickets and line it with moss, leaves and other soft plant material. A litter of usually two cubs is born, each weighing between 4 and 5 ounces, and they are completely furred to protect them from the cold environment. Offspring stay with the mother for about a year, which is when they normally reach adult size. Young will reach sexual maturity at round 18 months.
Red pandas have been bred with some reliability in zoos throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. As they decline in the wild, growing and maintaining self-sustaining populations in zoos is a high priority as a hedge against extinction and to learn more about species biology.
Red pandas may live as long as 22 years. While females do not breed after age 12, males continue to be reproductively capable.
The National Zoo currently exhibits two one-year-old red pandas—a female, Asa, and a male, Tusa.
In addition to the red pandas at the National Zoo, between one and five breeding pairs are located at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia. SCBI staff have experiencing hand raising these offspring, which helps to support the red panda SSP and genetic diversity of the population.
Endangered (IUCN) Appendix I (CITES)
Red pandas are listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, as of a 2015 analysis. They are also legally protected in India, Bhutan, China, Nepal, and Myanmar.
The primary threats to red pandas are habitat loss and degradation, human interference, and poaching.
Habitat loss is largely attributed to logging, demand for firewood, human encroachment, and farming. The decrease in suitable habitat for red pandas has coincided with the increase in human populations throughout Asia; with human encroachment comes livestock, agriculture, and dogs, all of which produce different threats to this species.
Poaching and illegal trade of red pandas has reportedly been on the rise, and has also contributed to their population decline. The presence of red panda pelts, meat, and other items has increased in the trade of illegal products, as have instances of live red pandas trafficked into the pet trade.
These threats are compounded by increasing climate change and natural disasters, inadequate enforcement of laws and regulations, and limited investment in red panda conservation by local governments.
Researchers believe that the total population of red pandas has declined by 50 percent over the past two decades; it is probable that this decline will continue in the coming years. Red pandas are present in several areas within their range. However, despite regulations, livestock grazing, hunting, and logging occur throughout many of these protected areas. In North American zoos red pandas are managed by an SSP, and there is a Global Species Management Plan (GSMP) connecting zoos around the world in red panda management and conservation.
Part of the difficulty in conserving red pandas relates to their unique habitat. These animals require a specific set of circumstances to optimize survival—proximity to water sources, appropriate forest cover and altitude, and sufficient bamboo, among others. As human encroachment continues to grow these ideal habitats become increasingly more difficult to find.
The National Zoo and SCBI have been at the forefront of red panda conservation, developing new reproductive technologies that will preserve sperm and egg DNA for future breeding and reintroduction to the wild programs. More than 100 surviving cubs have been born at the Zoo's two campuses since 1962.
The IUCN has prioritized four major categories of action that need to be taken in order to conserve red pandas: protect against habitat loss, reduce habitat degradation, reduce deaths of red pandas (through poaching and removing man-made threats), and improve awareness.
You can help take action to protect red pandas in your everyday life by:
- Purchasing sustainably harvested goods. Look for certified wood and paper products to ensure that your purchase is not contributing to illegal logging practices.
- Reducing, reusing, and recycling—in that order! Cut back on one-time-use goods whenever possible to reduce demand for materials used to create products contributing to deforestation and climate change. When you do make a purchase, be sure to reuse and recycle appropriately.
- Avoiding products derived from threatened species. Many endangered or threatened species are protected by local and international laws, and purchasing items or products from these animals can be illegal. When traveling abroad and at home, be a smart consumer—know what you are purchasing.
- Sharing the story of red pandas with others. Simply increasing awareness about red pandas can help work towards the overall protection of these animals.