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Species in Focus | How the endangered red panda is being pushed towards extinction

Loss of nesting trees and poaching have caused a decline in its populations across much of its natural range

Red pandas are excellent climbers and mostly forage on trees—everything from bamboo to berries—and that is why deforestation and fragmentation of their natural habitat is one of the biggest threats to them. (Credit: iStock)

Species in focus: Red panda (Ailurus fulgens)

Population: Less than 15,000 individuals globally

Current status, according to the IUCN Red List: Endangered

Population trend: Decreasing

Do not get perplexed by the name: The red panda is not related to the giant panda; this small mammal is found in many parts of India, including West Bengal, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. According to the World Wildlife Fund, almost 50% of the red panda’s habitat is located in the Eastern Himalaya. But the loss of nesting trees and bamboo has led to a decline in populations across much of its natural range, which extends to Nepal, China, Bhutan and Myanmar.

This beautiful-looking creature grows to be slightly larger than an average domestic cat; its thick fur and bear-like body make it stand out. While its belly area and limbs are black, it has distinctive white markings on the sides of the heads and eyes. Another interesting physical characteristic is its bushy tail, which not only adds to its overall length and balance but also acts as a comfortable wraparound to keep warm in winter.

Red pandas are excellent climbers and mostly forage on trees—everything from bamboo to berries—and that is why deforestation and fragmentation of their natural habitat is one of the biggest threats to them. Poaching is the next big threat, with only 14,500-15,000 individuals left in the wild. The mammal is hunted for its meat, fur, and often collected for trade in the exotic pet business. Earlier this year, conservation NGO and wildlife trade monitor network TRAFFIC released a new report, titled Assessment Of Illegal Trade-related Threats To Red Panda In India And Selected Neighbouring Range Countries. The study, which collected information on the red panda trade in India, Nepal and Bhutan, made some important recommendations for the protection of the species: including a red panda crime database that would help with monitoring and analysis, and greater support for efforts to mitigate “non-targeted trapping”. The red panda is often caught or accidentally trapped in snares deployed for animals such as wild pigs, among others.

According to a 2019 United Nations report, one million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction within decades. The Species in Focus series looks at one endangered species in every instalment.

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