The Red panda, also called the “Fire Cat,” is a tree dwelling mammal, which looks like a raccoon, with its bushy tail and white and black markings across its face. Characterised by its red fur, the red panda looks very different from its larger relative the giant panda. There are two species of red panda. One subspecies is found only in China, while the other found in India is also inhibits parts of Southern China.
Red pandas are found in the sub Himalayan states of north-east India: Sikkim, West Bengal and Arunachal Pradesh. It is found in areas within an altitude of 1500 to 4000 m.
The red panda is a rare animal and because of its reclusive arboreal nature and the difficult terrain in which it lives, accurate estimates of the red panda population are hard to arrive at. It is estimated that there are about 2,500 red pandas left in the wild.
The Red panda weighs 3-6 Kg and is covered with red fur. It grows to a length of 50-60 cm with a 20-50 cm long tail. It looks like a raccoon, with white tipped ears, white markings on its face, long whiskers and a bushy striped tail. Its paws are equipped for grasping the stems of bamboo plants and twigs of trees. It has a strong jaw to help it chew bamboo and en extended pad on the sole of the forepaw and the first digit of its paw to help it grasp bamboo while eating and in climbing up trees.
Red pandas prefer temperate bamboo forests. The dense bamboo forests that they prefer are severely under threat due to deforestation and red pandas are also seen in coniferous, oak and rhododendron forests. However they require bamboo to feed on and prefer not to move too far from their source of food.
Red pandas primarily eat Bamboo, usually bamboo leaves and young bamboo shoots in spring. Red pandas are omnivorous and they also forage for seasonal fruits, flowers, nuts and seeds, insects, bird’s eggs and small birds and rodents.
They are excellent tree climbers and spend most of their time, up to 13 hours a day, foraging for bamboo. The rest of the time is spent sleeping on the branches or in hollows of trees. They are largely solitary animals.
Red panda Cubs stay with their mothers till about a year old. A littler of usually 2 cubs is born to a red panda mother in a hollow tree or rock shelter. Red pandas have a life span of 8 – 17 years in captivity. Red pandas mark their territory with secretions from their scent glands and communicate with a range of sounds and gestures including tail arching and whistling.
The loss of habitat as well as human population pressure on wildlife reserves in India is a matter of concern for red panda populations in India. The fragmentation of their habitat due to human encroachment, deforestation for agricultural reasons, firewood collection and logging for timber and the effect of domestic livestock species on the bamboo forests has led to the decline of red panda populations.
By Sachin Kaushik