Just last week some red panda (Ailurus spp.) cubs debuted at the Perth Zoo and they were a hit. As far as I know they have always drawn crowds, but their voguishness is relative.
In contemporary history the popularity of the vibrantly-colored red panda may have been suppressed by common nomenclature. Sharing its colloquial name with the giant panda–a species of bear that also happens to subsist almost exclusively on bamboo–has placed the red panda at a disadvantage from a public relations standpoint, at least as far as scientists are concerned. The red panda is quite popular among zoo visitors and they are common in zoos.
The red panda was, indeed, the first panda and subsequent to the discovery of the larger flagship species of bamboo forests it was relegated to some obscurity. Not surprisingly it also once assumed the common name “lesser panda”– a collocation, which has almost come to have a pejorative meaning.
Charismatic in its own right, the taxonomically unique carnivoran still seems to live in the shadow of the black and white bear. I suspect that as we learn more about the life of the red panda in the wild, the more attention and acclaim it will receive as a species independent of the hype surrounding the other more notable panda species.
Frederic Cuvier, a “head keeper” at the National Museum of Natural History was not the first to describe the red panda. He was, however, the first to publish a description of the species. He named it Ailurus fulgens or red shining cat. Frederic was a relative of Georges Cuvier–a noted French naturalist and recognized father of vertebrate paleontology. Frederic described the red panda as one of the most handsome of extant mammal species. And it is hard to dispute the regal beauty of this animal. However, attention to this species has certainly been underwhelming for a small to medium-sized carnivore.
When I think of bamboo forests, I think of both the red panda and giant panda as a flagship species. I have cared for red pandas in zoo collections where they are common, well-adapted and easy to propagate, for the most part. Still, my knowledge of them is limited to captive animals.
I asked my friend and colleague, Dr. Angela Glatston, one of the foremost experts on red panda, a member of the IUCN Small Carnivore Specialist Group, and the Chair of the European Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s European Carnivore Campaign about red pandas and what we can do to conserve them. Angela is the curator of mammals at the Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands–home to one of the most prolific breeding programs for red panda in the world.”
Jordan: I remember as keeper that zoos were either phasing out a subspecies of red panda, or that conservation geneticists were revisiting their taxonomy?
Angela: In the early days of the unofficial global breeding of the red panda we decided to try to persuade the different regional breeding programmes (EEP/SSP/ASMP, etc.) to concentrate on one of the two subspecies. In Europe we said we would work with fulgens, and Japan would focus on styani. In the US you would keep both susbspecies, so really you should not have met this discussion in your zoo. However I suspect that different SSP coordinators may have had their different preferences for subspecies. They may have tried phasing one or other in or out, but I am not sure about this. In my red panda book, Colin Groves considers fulgens and styani to be diagnosably distinct evolutionary units. Which I guess means we should treat them as separate species.
Jordan: Are red panda as easy to propagate in zoos as the popular literature suggests?
Angela: Yes and no. They are not that difficult to breed if you [manage] them right–keeping them in pairs, in a quiet location, with lots of nest boxes and shade and trees. Avoid disturbing mothers and cubs too much, and take care at weaning time. The problem is few zoos do all of these things. As a result there are many zoos which don’t successfully breed their animals, or their dams neglect or kill their young. So no the population is not growing particularly well and is not as secure or stable as we might think.
Jordan: Do they suffer from a PR problem?
Angela: Again, yes and no. Once people actually see them they are hooked. a few cute pictures and videos can win a lot of hearts. However, many PR departments may need to be convinced of this. And the name doesn’t help as people continue expecting to see a small version of the giant panda.
Jordan: What are the threats red pandas face in the wild?
Angela: Habitat loss, habitat fragmentation and further fragmentation of the fragments. Disturbance and attacks by dogs which move with herders and their livestock into red panda habitat, and to a lesser extent poaching. One rather worrying recent development is the apparent appearance of red pandas (on the menu) in some restaurants in China. I suspect the arrival of domestic dogs in red panda habitat brings with it the very real threat of canine distemper to which red pandas are very susceptible.
Jordan: What can people do to help conserve this species?
Angela: This is a difficult one–what can the individual do. There is nothing we purchase which is destroying their habitat. It might be argued that increased trekking vacations put pressure on firewood collection and result in habitat loss. In comparison with the other causes of habitat loss this, firewood collection, is relatively limited. The only think I guess is to show you care which will put pressure on local governments. People can give money to support conservation initiatives such as the Red Panda Network’s work.