Imagine you are in the beautiful, lush forests of Sikkim when you spot what looks like a cat in the tall trees. You wonder if it is a raccoon or fox. No, it’s a red panda. This lovable creature, which looks just like a stuffed toy, is Sikkim’s state animal and goes by several names: cat bear, because of its looks; wah, like the sound it makes; and firefox, for its striking flame-red colour.
The red panda is known to be one of the Earth’s living fossils, as it has existed for over 10 million years. This mysterious animal was believed to be the sole surviving member of the Ailuridae family. Recent studies conclude that there are two different species of red pandas: the Himalayan red panda (Ailurus fulgens fulgens), endemic to the Eastern Himalayan forests in Nepal, Bhutan, and India, and the Chinese red panda (Ailurus fulgens styani) in the montane regions of Northern Yunan, China.
Shy and quiet, red pandas occupy a specialised habitat of temperate broadleaf forests and subalpine conifers, dominated by fir, Himalayan hemlock, oak, maple, rhododendron, juniper, and bamboo thickets. They have reddish-brown coats and bushy tails with alternating red-and-white rings that help them with camouflage. The tail also helps them balance when they climb, sit, or sleep on branches, and their long claws help them climb up the highest trees to bask in the sunlight.
Red pandas have descended from the same ancestors as other meat-eating animals and are hence classified as carnivores. However, they have evolved to mainly feed on bamboo, and occasionally, fruits and insects. Red pandas spend about 13 hours a day foraging and eating. One study also found that female red pandas eat about 20,000 bamboo leaves in a single day!
Red pandas are solitary animals except while mating. They make a twittering sound to draw the attention of their partners. Three months after a successful mating, a red panda mother gives birth to one to four cubs. Cubs are born blind, have grey fur and closed ears. Soon, they develop sight and hearing and grow their stunning reddish-brown coat. They are cute and cuddly in appearance but also incredibly smart and expert escape artists. With their curious nature and spectacular agility, red pandas have reportedly escaped from enclosures in zoos around the world.
Today, red pandas are an endangered species, with only 300 left in the wild in Sikkim and less than 10,000 individuals globally. Human populations are on the rise in the Eastern Himalayas, and developmental projects including roads, railways and forest land converted to agricultural fields resulting in degraded forests. Unsustainable use of forest byproducts depletes resources, further reducing habitat quality. This gentle creature faces a high mortality rate, with few cubs surviving in the wild. Red pandas are also poached for their fur, and law enforcement against poaching is often weak. All these factors are pressing challenges to red panda conservation. But there is still hope as conservation efforts have already begun to save these animals.
I work as the National Geographic photo Ark EDGE Fellow in the Sikkim Himalayan Landscape, the heart of red panda habitat in India. For me, this mysterious animal has been extremely difficult to spot. I have only seen it six times in the wild during four years of research, but nothing matches my first encounter with the red panda. One January morning, my team and I were walking in the forest when we spotted what looked like a red panda pugmark. Despite the freezing temperatures and poor visibility, we kept following the marks when a long, striped bushy tail caught my attention. Incredibly, the adorable creature was looking at us — it was a moment of pure adrenaline rush. For 20 minutes, we stood there and observed the animal, holding our breath and trying to get closer to it. Finally, it moved and vanished into the thick foliage, but not before we documented the experience with several pictures. Although it was a short visit, I felt blessed with this one in a million sighting.
Our team, Red Panda on EDGE, focuses on the red panda’s conservation through research, education, and communication. With support from the ZSL EDGE of Existence Program and National Geographic Society, we are creating a database of status distribution information and maps of red panda distribution in Sikkim. We have collated information from protected areas and non-protected areas to understand the variables that govern red panda distribution in the landscape. Our outputs are crucial for prioritising areas for red panda conservation and for preparing management plans for the species. At this time, my team and I continue to raise awareness within communities by collaborating with state government departments, schools, and colleges in person and through social media.
Many government sectors (like forest and wildlife departments) and NGO’s (RPN, WWF, Zoological Survey of India and ATREE besides those mentioned above) are contributing immensely to red panda conservation by generating funds for research, education, and communication programmes.
We share this beautiful world with many other incredible, breathtaking creatures like red pandas and it is our duty to care for them and act responsibly. If each of us starts thinking on it, make a mark by their own ways, then future generations can still hope to spot such mysterious mammals in the Himalayas.