The five red panda cubs in large box-like cribs at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia are bottle-fed, sleepy and wobbly on their legs. They have bandit masks and thick, rich fur, and they make soft squealing noises and something called a huff-quack, which sounds like a huff-quack. They are surrounded by silly grins as they are lifted out and fed – wide, involuntary and irrepressible face-splitting smiles. No one — scientist, reporter or photographer — is immune to the baby panda smile reflex.
The scientific literature reflects the red panda’s appeal. Frederic Cuvier, who published the first Western scientific description of the animal in 1825, deemed it “quite the most handsome mammal in existence.” One of the foremost modern authorities, Angela Glatston, in a book she edited about red panda biology, described the animal as “flamboyantly clad in chestnut, chocolate and cream,” and called it “a creature of great beauty and charm.” And yet, even though they inspire delight, and have a presence in movies (the master in Kung Fu Panda), and on the Internet (in lots of videos and as the avatar of @darth, a popular Twitter persona), they are far less well known and understood than that other panda, the giant black and white one.
And they are in trouble. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which assesses the status of wild populations of animals, estimates that about 10,000 live in the wild, in two subspecies, all on mountain slopes in a narrow band running from western China to Nepal. Deforestation and disease threaten them now, and climate change looms.
Angela, who recently retired from the Rotterdam Zoo, runs the global species management programme for red pandas for the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. She said that zoos around the world, outside China, kept about 500 red pandas, which they breed to try to maintain a population as a stopgap against threats to wild pandas. The captive bred pandas could, so the theory goes, be reintroduced into the wild, if necessary.
And those are the pandas that researchers study, by and large, because it is so hard to observe them in the wild. “They are secretive animals,” said Elizabeth Freeman, a conservation biologist at George Mason University and a research associate at the Smithsonian institute. Researchers hope new insights into the behaviour, health and reproductive biology of the red pandas will help the zoo programmes and tell them something about wild pandas. “We just want to answer very basic questions,” she said.
Red pandas are about two feet long when they are grown, not counting their bushy, banded tail. They are built for cold weather; even the bottoms of their feet are furred. They are listed as vulnerable, by the IUCN, although some scientists are pushing to have them classified as endangered, the next step up. They live in mixed forests with an undergrowth of bamboo, at an altitude of 4,600 to 15,000 feet, Elizabeth said — a limited ecological niche. Like giant pandas, they feed primarily on bamboo, although they apparently supplement that with eggs, small birds and insects.
The Smithsonian Institute is home to the largest colony of red pandas in North America — 17, although the number fluctuates as some young pandas move to zoos elsewhere. The adults live in high-domed cages, with nesting boxes that can be cooled during hot weather. Researchers are collaborating on studies of the pandas’ health and behaviour with a facility in Chengdu, China, which has about 100 of the animals, and also houses giant pandas.
One of the problems in maintaining populations is reproduction in captivity. Only about half the young survive, and researchers say that is probably because mothers do not provide enough milk or care for the young properly. No one knows whether similar problems exist in the wild, Elizabeth said. Ken Lang, a supervisory biologist at the Smithsonian facility, who tends the cubs with Jessica Kordell, an animal keeper and graduate student at George Mason who is studying with Elizabeth, said the hand-raised cubs did well. “They go on to breed,” he said. “They lead successful lives.” They are much slower than dogs or cats to develop, he said, taking about four months to function on their own.
Copper, who also worked on giant pandas, said preliminary results showed that dental disease was an issue as well as fractured tails — perhaps because of aggression among the animals — and some unexplained changes in levels of vitamins and minerals. “It is hard to say what is normal,” she said. This spring, Elizabeth presented findings at the Animal Behaviour Society meeting in Anchorage, Alaska that confirmed that red pandas preferred to be on their own. Social housing is not necessarily a good thing, as it is with many other animals. Red pandas in the wild face threats from expanding human populations, Angela said, in the form of habitat loss and disease, primarily distemper from domestic dogs, to which they are very susceptible. There are some conservation efforts in China, but the one Western conservation organisation devoted specifically to the animal is the Red Panda Network, a small nonprofit based in Kathmandu, Nepal, and San Francisco that works to protect the population in Nepal.
With a total of about 700 members, a staff of six and a number of zoos that donate money, the network is working on several fronts. Nancy Whelan, the director of development, said the group had set up a forest guardian programme that pays 54 local people to monitor red panda populations and potential threats. They have joined forces with village committees that are instrumental in managing what are called community forests. They are working to make more fuel-efficient stoves available to combat deforestation.
And, in concert with local organisations, the network is supporting the creation of a protected forest in a wildlife corridor in eastern Nepal, called the Panchthar-Ilam-Taplejung Red Panda Protected Forest. “Twenty-five percent of Nepal’s red panda population is moving in that corridor,” Nancy said. Some of the habitat loss, however, may be beyond local control. “I think down the road what may actually do them in is climate change,” Elizabeth said. “Because they are in such a small niche in the Himalayas, and as climate change warms that area and moves that population higher in elevation, they’re going to lose habitat probably faster than they can accommodate to climate change.”
She added, “I see them as being a critical indicator species for the health of the Himalayan ecosystem, probably more so than giant pandas.” The effort to understand and to protect red pandas is now at the point at which work on giant pandas was 50 years ago,Copper said. “It feels very much like we’re at the beginning,” she said. “In some ways, it’s really exciting. In other ways, a little daunting.”