With its brilliant cinnamon-red coat, jet black legs and underbelly and ringed tail, the Red Panda could easily be mistaken for a Pokemon come to life!
Even Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, could not resist its kitten-like face and gentle demeanor and kept four as pets. But with habitat loss as a result of human incursion and poaching, these adorable creatures are now under threat.
Today, the Red Panda can be found only in isolated mountain regions of China, Nepal, India, Bhutan, and Burma, where bamboo is plentiful. But red panda fossils that date as far back as five million years, have been discovered in North America. First things first. Is this enchanting cat-like critter actually a relative of the famous roly-poly black and white Giant Panda of China? Well, no! Actually, India’s Red Panda was discovered forty eight years before roly-poly made the books.
For years after that, scientists debated on where to place the Red Panda in the evolutionary scheme of things. They were first thought to be members of the raccoon family, owing to the shape of their head and the ringed tail, but everyone didn’t agree. Later they were added to the bear family but that wasn’t a fit either.
Most recently, genetic research placed Red Pandas into their own independent family: Ailuridae, a living fossil of a rare, now extinct branch of mammal carnivores related to weasels, raccoons and skunks.
Though they belong to different families, the Red Panda’s habitat and diet is very similar to China’s furry goodwill ambassador; even in the celluloid world, ‘Kung Fu Panda’ saw Po and Shifu on the same turf! Red pandas selectively feed on the most nutritious leaf tips and tender shoots of bamboo, unlike the giant panda which shows no such discretion when it comes to eating the plant, including its wooden stem. Most of their waking hours are spent in getting enough calories and they have developed exceptional climbing skills; even the acrobatic feat of climbing DOWN a tree head first!
Despite living in such an isolated area, researchers believe that the total population of Red Pandas has declined by fifty percent over the past two decades, leaving fewer than 10,000 of these shy creatures in existence. The Red Panda has been listed ‘vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN); the world’s main authority on the conservation status of species. Fortunately, they are quite adaptable to living in captivity and are a common sight in zoos worldwide. Many zoos offer programs to ‘Adopt a Red Panda’ – a wonderful way to fund conservation efforts and protect this precious species.
Photo story by Joshua Cheek | 3 Photos | Edited by Dominic D’Cruz