Red Panda


Nigalya ponya – “Eater of Bamboo”

Red Panda


The red panda has stumped scientists. The problem of its classification is capable of giving any taxonomist very violent headaches. Where do you categorize an animal which is classified as a relative of the giant panda, but has anatomical features similar to the raccoon in the hierarchical system? It shares the giant panda’s rainy, high-altitude forest habitat but resembles a raccoon in size and appearance. The scientists came up with a simple solution – currently, red pandas are classified under their own unique family—the Ailuridae!

These reddish brown, long-tailed, raccoon like animals, about the size of a large cat, usually reach a body length of 50 – 64 cm at adulthood, with a big bushy tail that adds about 30 – 60 cm.  It weighs approximately 3 – 6 kg. The red panda has soft, thick fur- rich reddish brown above and black underneath. The face is white, with a stripe of red-brown from each eye to the corners of the mouth; and the tail is faintly ringed. The feet have hairy soles, and the claws are semi-retractile. The pandas wrap their tails around themselves to keep away the cold in the chilly mountain heights.

The red panda is found in a mountainous band from western Nepal through northeastern India and Bhutan and into China, Laos and northern Myanmar. The species also lives throughout mountainous areas of southwestern China. Red pandas only live in temperate forests in the foothills of the Himalayas. They reside at altitudes generally between 1500 and 4800 meters where the temperature is generally cool, and there is little annual variation. A bamboo understory grows in these forests and provides the bulk of the red panda’s diet. However, these patches of bamboo are only found in narrow bands throughout the red panda’s range. Thus, although red pandas are distributed across thousands of miles of territory, they are restricted to these small, fragile areas.

The red panda’s diet mostly consists of bamboo, very unusual for a mammal. Their broad teeth and strong jaws allow them to chew bamboo’s tough leaves and stalks. They also have a small, bony projection on their wrists that helps them grip bamboo stalks. When the weather is warm enough, it sometimes supplements its diet with fruits.  It has also been reported to occasionally eat berries, blossoms, fungi, seeds, acorns, eggs, young birds, small rodents, and insects. To cope with the lack of food during the winter months and meet their energy demands red pandas can spend as much as 13 hours a day foraging for food. They also have a very low metabolic rate and can slow their metabolism even further in cold temperatures. The thick fur that even covers the soles of their feet allows them to conserve body heat. With a diet that relies mainly on bamboo, that grows sparsely and sporadically, and deforestation for timber, fuel and agricultural land, their habitat is shrinking day by day.

The red panda lives high in the mountains among rocks and trees and climbs trees with agility. It seems to do most of its feeding on the ground. It uses trees not only for feeding but also to escape ground-based predators, and to sunbathe high above the canopy of leaves in winter. They are primarily crepuscular, as being active in the night and most active during the early morning with slightly decreased activity around midday.  On average, they are awake for only 56% of the day.

It may live alone, in pairs, or in family groups. A female red panda makes a maternal den in a tree hollow, branch fork, tree root, bamboo thicket or a rock crevice, fashioned and lined with branches, leaves and moss. After a long gestation period of about 134 days, litters of one to four young ones are born, usually in the spring. Cubs are born covered in thick grey fur with their eyes and ears closed. The cubs will stay in the nest for about 90 days, remain close to their mother until the next mating season begins, and reach adulthood after 12 months.

In terms of their ranging patterns, red pandas behave much like larger carnivores. They tend to have overlapping home ranges in which the individuals rarely interact with each other. Red pandas mark their territories with urine, secretions from anal glands, and scents from glands on the pads of their feet. They have also been known to use communal latrine sites to stake out territory and share information with others.  In addition, red pandas often communicate using body language and different noises.

Red pandas are an endangered species, with an alarmingly small and declining population. With a diet that relies mainly on bamboo, that grows sparsely and sporadically, and deforestation for timber, fuel and agricultural land, their habitat is shrinking day by day. Their limited food resource and slow rate of reproduction contribute to their attrition and cause a great deal of difficulty recovering from population declines. Then there is the illegal poaching and trading of its beautiful fur that drastically decreases its numbers. Its red fur is in high demand in China, where it is used to make hats and clothes. In Yunnan Province, hats made of red panda fur are still desired by newlyweds as a talisman for a happy marriage. It is already extinct in 4 of the 7 Chinese provinces in which it was previously found.

The exact size of Asia’s red panda population is currently unknown, but with their extinction looming ahead as an ominous and dismal possibility, zoos around the world have taken up the call to preserve the species.  More than 80 zoos currently have red pandas, and almost all of them participate in a management program to ensure the survival of a viable zoo population. North America runs the Red Panda Species Survival Program (SSP) which keeps a record of all red pandas on the continent, determines which animals should be mated, and develops long-term research and management strategies for the species. Other management programs have been created in Japan, Europe, Australia, and China

Interesting Facts about the Red Panda

  • The Chinese name for red panda is hunho or firefox, due to their colour and similar size to a fox.
  • Like giant pandas, red pandas have an extra ‘thumb’ which is actually just an enlarged bone.
  • A red panda can consume up to 45 percent of its own body weight daily eating approximately 200,000 bamboo leaves in a day.
  • The origin of the name “panda” is the Nepalese word “Nigalya ponya”, which means “eater of bamboo”.
  • They are also known as “Chitwa” or “Wah” in native Nepali language.
  • The red panda was first discovered in 1821, 48 years before the giant pandas were found in 1869.
  • There are very few examples among mammalians that are endowed with such beautiful fur as that which adorns the body of the panda.

Explore Himalaya has reproduced this article with the kind permission of TravelTimes magazine ( This article was published in the May 2009 issue.

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