Red panda (Ailurus fulgens)

Also known as: lesser panda, red cat-bear
French: Panda Éclatant, Petit Panda
Spanish: Panda Chico, Panda Rojo
GenusAilurus (1)
SizeLength: 50 – 64 cm (2)
Tail length: 28 – 50 cm (2)
Weight3 – 6 kg (2)
Top facts

The red panda is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1), and listed on Appendix I of CITES (3).

Due to similarities with both the bear and racoon family, the classification of the red panda (Ailurus fulgens) has caused continued controversy since it was first described in 1825 (1) (4). Today it is placed with the racoons, but in its own separate subfamily, the Ailurinae (4). The lustrous coat is a rich reddish brown colour on the back and black on the legs; longer coarse guard hairs cover the dense woolly undercoat, which provides warmth (4). The coat provides effective camouflage amongst the trees where branches are often swathed in reddish-brown moss (5). The face is rounded and predominantly white with reddish brown ‘tear marks’ running from the corner of each eye to the mouth (5). The long bushy tail is marked with 12 alternating red and buff rings and the soles of the feet are covered with thick white hair to provide warmth (5). Like the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), red pandas posses a modified wrist bone that acts as a sixth digit or thumb, although it is smaller than that of the better-known giant panda (4). Red pandas have a wide range of vocalisations, the most peculiar of which is a ‘quack-snort’ (4). Currently two subspecies of the red panda exist; Ailurus fulgens fulgens is smaller and lighter (especially in the facial region) than the related A. f. styani (6).

Red pandas are found in the Himalayas and mountainous regions of northern Myanmar, and western Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces in China (1). The Brahmaputra River at the eastern end of the Himalayas is thought to represent a physical barrier between the two subspecies (6), with A. f. fulgens found to the west in Nepal and northeastern India and A. f. styani to the east (1).

The red panda is found in temperate montane forests at elevations between 2,200 and 4,800 metres above sea level where there is a thick bamboo understory (5).

Predominately solitary, red pandas are most active at dawn and dusk (5). They have semi-retractable claws, which allow them to be efficient climbers and when not foraging, pandas are usually found in the trees. Males occupy territories that overlap those of several females, especially in the mating season (4), and territories of both sexes are marked with anal secretions (5). Red pandas mate on the ground but the female gives birth, usually to two young, within a hollow tree nest cavity (5). Young are born blind and helpless, opening their eyes after 18 days (5). 

Red pandas are one of the few animals whose diet is composed almost entirely on bamboo; they grasp stems with their forepaws and shear the leaves off with sharp teeth (4). Bamboo is poor in nutrients; to compensate, red pandas are only active for around 56 percent of the day (4) and have an extremely slow metabolism. Other foods such as roots and fruit as well as small lizards and bird’s eggs are also eaten (2). Red pandas have an ungainly walk on the ground but are much more agile in the trees, using their tail for balance, although it is not prehensile; on the ground the tail is carried horizontally away from the body (5). After eating or resting the red panda will tend to groom itself thoroughly (5).

Red pandas have suffered from habitat loss throughout their range; forests have been cleared for timber extraction, agriculture and development. In China the species is thought to have undergone a decline of around 40 percent over the last 50 years (7) and A. f. fulgens is equally threatened in Nepal (8). The panda has also been exploited for its pelt; hats made from the lustrous fur are still desired in Yunnan in China for newlyweds, as it traditionally symbolises a happy marriage (1).

The red panda is protected in all of the countries in which it is found with the exception of Myanmar (5), and it is listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (3). In China, the species occurs within many of the reserves that were established to protect the giant panda (5). An international breeding programme exists, and red pandas are bred in more than 30 zoos world wide; in North America alone the captive population was 182 individuals in 2001 and these are maintained and managed under the Species Survival Plan (SSP) (5) (6). Protection of the remaining habitat of this appealing and unobtrusive mammal is the key to the survival of the already rare red panda.

For more information on the red panda:

Authenticated (03/03/05) by Pralad Yonzon, Resources Himalaya.

  1. IUCN Red List (January, 2009)
  2. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  3. CITES (November, 2002)
  4. Macdonald, D. (2001) The New Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  5. The Red Panda SSP (November, 2002)
  6. Universityof Georgia (November, 2002)
  7. Friends of the National Zoo (November, 2002)
  8. Yonzon, P.B. & Hunter, M.L. (1991) Conservation of the red panda Ailurus fulgens. Biological Conservation, 57: 1 – 11.