The red panda, also known as the lesser panda, has rust–colored fur with chocolate brown markings. The Chinese call this striking animal “firefox” because of its flame–colored fur.
The red panda has short, pointed ears and a mask similar to a raccoon’s. In fact, the red panda is considered a member of the raccoon family, unlike its relative the giant panda, which is a member of the bear family.
An average red panda has a head and body length of 20 to 23.5 inches (51 to 60 centimeters) and weighs between 7.7 and 11 pounds (3.5 and 5 kilograms). Its banded tail measures 12 to 20 inches (30 to 51 centimeters) in length.
The animal is most active at dawn and at dusk. Although it spends most of its time in trees, it feeds on the ground. Its diet consists mainly of bamboo leaves, but it also eats grasses, berries, fruits, roots, and other plant matter.
Red pandas are solitary and territorial. A male red panda will often patrol the boundary of his territory, while a female will often remain in the center of hers. The territory of a single male will overlap the territories of several females. Males and females come together to mate in January and February.
During the courtship period, males and females will groom each other. After mating is complete, the male leaves and will not care for the female or her young. A female red panda gives birth to 1 to 4 cubs in a secure den (hollow tree, cave, or rock crevice) after a gestation (pregnancy) period of 90 to 145 days.
The newborn pandas are tan in color, blind, and totally dependent on their mother. They nurse for about 5 months, then begin eating bamboo leaves. A month later, they leave to stake out their own territories.
Habitat and current distribution
The red panda is found in the Himalayas and other mountains in northern India, southern China, Nepal, Bhutan, northern Myanmar, and northern Laos. It inhabits mountain spruce and fir forests at elevations between 6,500 and 13,000 feet (1,980 and 3,960 meters). The animal has been studied extensively only in Nepal. Scientists are unsure of the total number of red pandas in existence.
History and conservation measures
In areas where forests have not been completely cleared, many trees have been cut down for use as fuel or building materials. The little “islands” of forest that remain are often not large enough to support the number of red pandas that have been forced to live there. With limited food sources, many of the animals starve to death.
Because of its attractive fur, the red panda has been hunted for its coat. Traps set for other animals in its range, such as the musk deer, also have taken their toll on the red panda. International treaties prohibit the trading of red panda pelts, and the animal is fully protected in China and Nepal.
In China, a number of red pandas also benefit by inhabiting the parks and reserves that have been set up for giant pandas. Displayed in zoos worldwide, red pandas have been bred in captivity with reasonable success. The International Red Panda Management Group is leading an effort to unite breeding programs around the world into a single global program.