There are 2 main groups of Carnivores: dog-like carnivores ("Caniformia") and cats. How the red panda fits within the dog group is undetermined.
Fossil evidence is scarce but suggests a close tie to the Procyonidae (raccoons).
Molecular studies support a relationship to Mustelidae (weasels) and Mephitidae (skunks).
2 distinct species are recognized by Colin Groves (2011); other taxonomists argue for 2 subspecies and the IUCN currently treats both as a single species – Ailurus fulgens
A. fulgens or A. fulgens fulgens: Himalayas and perhaps Zhangmu (southwestern Tibet)
A. styani or A. fulgens styani: Yunnan (China), Sichuan (China), Burma and perhaps eastern Tibet
Nomenclature: In 1821, Major-General Thomas Hardwicke described the red panda in a paper presented to the Linnaean Society*. Because his paper was not published until 6 years later, he is not credited as the describer.
"Panda" origin unclear. May derive from a local name, "nigalya ponya," which may have meant something like "bamboo footed” (Catton 1990).
The "Giant" panda was named 48 years later because of similarities to the Red panda
*In 1825, Cuvier published the description, choosing the name Ailurus fulgens meaning "shining" or "fire-colored" cat
English – Red panda, Lesser panda, Red cat-bear, Fire fox, Fox bear, Himalayan raccoon
Burma – Kyaung-wun
China – Chu-chieh-liang, Xia xong mao
Central Nepal – Hobrey
French – Panda éclatant, Petit panda
Spanish – Panda chico, Panda rojo
Between 30 and 50 million years ago, ancestors of modern bears (ursids) split into 2 lineages (O'Brien 1985)
Within 10 million years of the split (possibly at the same time), the procyonid group split into Old World procyonids (lesser panda) and New World procyonids (raccoon, coati, olingo, and kinkajou)
The Giant panda diverged from other ursids 15-25 million years ago
Red pandas and Giant pandas ARE NOT related although they share a number of similiar characteristics (this is known as "convergent evolution")
Both are bamboo eaters with well-developed jaws, grinding molars, and similar digestive systems
Both have "false thumbs," which are also found in another fossil carnivore (Salesa 2011)
Both have similar reproductive organs
Red pandas are the only remaining member of the Ailuridae, while Giant pandas are bears (Ursidae)
The earliest "ailurids" probably originated in Europe during Late Oligocene-Early Miocene (25-18 million years ago)
First true Red pandas appear during the Miocene in Spain
Earliest reference: 13th century Chou Dynasty scroll
Because habitat is largely inaccessible, and the species is extremely secretive, it has had relatively little economic or cultural impact
Red panda fur is considered good luck by some tribal people – Red panda fur hats are still worn in many regions, especially by bridegrooms
The sight of a Red panda when traveling on business is considered to be a good omen
In Central Bhutan, they are thought to be the reincarnation of Buddhist monks
Area of occupancy is essentially equivalent to suitable habitat. Habitat in lower areas is badly degraded.
Proximity to water may be an important requirement. In one national park, 90% of droppings were found within 100 m of the nearest water source (Yonzon & Hunter 1991)
In China – 3 provinces: 76,245 sq km potential habitat (25,668 sq km are protected in 46 reserves)
Sichuan: 35,008 sq km (32 reserves = 16,121 sq km), 3,000 - 3,400 Red pandas
Yunnan: 21,658 sq km (8 reserves = 7,189 sq km), 1,600 - 2,000 Red pandas
Tibet: 9,500 sq km (6 reserves = 2,357 sq km), 1,400 - 1,600 Red pandas
In India: 25,000 sq km potential habitat
Arunchal Pradesh – 11,300 sq km used
Meghalaya – 300 sq km used
Sikkim – 800 sq km used
West Bengal – 100 sq km used
In Nepal: 16,700 sq km potential habitat, 8,200 sq km used
In Bhutan: 10,900 sq km potential habitat, 5,400 sq km used
In Myanmar: 13,000 sq km potential habitat, 6,400 sq km used
Other mammal species sharing this habitat: Gray langur, dhole, Himalayan black bear, Yellow-throated marten, leopard, red deer, Alpine musk deer, Himalayan goral, Spotted giant flying squirrel, Eurasian shrew. Overlaps with the Giant panda in Sichuan, China (Wei, 2000).
*Very few studies of Red pandas in the wild. First serious study by Brian Hodgson in 1830s.
From the 1847 description of the Red panda by B.H. Hodgson:
These quiet inoffensive animals in their
manners and diet, much resemble the badgers
of our land, the lemurs of Madagascar and the
raccoons, coatis and potos of America....In
general they eschew flesh, fish, insects, and
reptiles absolutely. But they love milk and
ghee, and constantly make their way furtively
into remote dairies and cowherds' cottages to
possess themselves of those luxuries. Their
ordinary feeding times are early morn and eve.
They sleep a deal in the day and dislike strong
lights, though not nocturnal in their habits of
seeking food. Their manners are staid and
tranquil; their movements slow and deliberate.
They are delicate animals and cannot endure
heat at all, nor cold well, amply and entirely as
they are clad in fur. They are not pugnacious
nor noisy, but remarkably the contrary of both.
As climbers, no quadrupeds can surpass, and
very few equal them, but on the ground they
move awkwardly as well as slowly, yet without
any special embarrassment."
Click here to see Hodgson's pen and ink drawing of Red pandas.
Can be diurnal, crepuscular, and/or nocturnal
Active 45% - 49% of the time
Activity levels highest in summer
Numerous rest periods throughout the day interspersed with feeding activity
Energy-saving strategy compensates for low-quality diet
Excellent tree climbers – rest/sleep in trees (spread out in warm weather, curled when it is cold)
More frequent rest periods in winter – can be greater than 2 hours in duration
10,000 individuals* (Choudhury and Yonzon, personal communication)
*Nocturnal habits and shyness make population estimates extremely difficult. Wei et al. (1999) estimated 3,000 - 7,000 total individuals in China, while Choudhury (2001) estimates 5,000 - 6,000 in India
IUCN Status 2008: Vulnerable
Fewer than 10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline of greater than 10% over the next 3 generations (estimated at 30 years)
2008 – Vulnerable
1996 – Endangered
1994 – Vulnerable
1990 – Insufficiently Known (IUCN 1990)
CITES Status: 1995 Appendix I
China: about 46 reserves within Red panda ranges (25,668 sq km)
32 reserves in Sichuan – 3,000 - 3,4000 individuals
8 reserves in Yunnan – 1,600 - 2,000 individuals
6 reserves in Tibet – 1,400 - 1,600 individuals
India: 20 reserves – 5,000 - 6,000 individuals
Bhutan: 5 reserves
Nepal: 7 reserves
Threats to survival
Leopards, Dholes, Asian golden cats, Golden eagles. Yellow-throated marten known to kill newborns.
Limited food supply
Diet is usually limited to 1 or 2 species of bamboo
After flowering (once every 70 - 100 years), bamboo dies and it takes an average of 10 years for new shoots to regenerate
Competitors for bamboo: Assamese macaque, Stump-tailed macaque, Capped langur, Golden langur, Hoolock gibbon, Takin, Sambar, Elephant, Wild pig, Porcupine, Bamboo rats; Giant panda in Sichuan eats the same bamboo species but different parts of the bamboo (See Diet & Feeding section)
Habitat degradation and fragmentation
Logging, firewood, clearing for farming, grazing of domestic stock, road construction
Red panda numbers may have decreased by as much as 40% over the last 50 years due to massive habitat loss
Poaching and hunting
Habitat loss and fragmentation
Inbreeding depression (Wei et al. 1998)
Cub mortality is high in areas surrounding cattle grazing activities, estimated at up to 74% (Yonzon, personal communication)
Human population explosion with demand for housing, farming, and firewood (Choudhury 2001)
Poaching in the Indian portion of its range (Choudhury 2001)
Road construction and logging
Global warming, drought and forest fires, unusual weather patterns
Lack of enforcement of wildlife laws within reserves
Growth of human population within the Red panda's range; human population has almost doubled between 1971 and 1991
Important Web Resources
Cherub of the Mist. 2006. Free online documentary featuring the first video footage of Red pandas in the wild. Chronicles the successful reintroduction of two Red pandas into Singalila National Park in West Bengal and India.