ailurus fulgens

Red Panda

The Red Panda, Firefox, Fire Cat, or Lesser Panda , "or Ailurus fulgens ("shining cat"), is a mostly herbivorous mammal, specialized as a bamboo feeder. It is slightly larger than a domestic cat (40 - 60 cm long, 3 - 6 kg weight). The Red Panda is endemic to the Himalayas in Bhutan, southern China, India, Laos, Nepal, and Burma. Red Panda is the state animal in the Indian state of Sikkim. It is also the mascot of the Darjeeling international festivals. There is an estimated population of fewer than 2,500 mature individuals. Their population continues to decline due to habitat fragmentation.


The most recent molecular-systematic DNA research places the Red Panda into its own independent family Ailuridae. Ailuridae are in turn part of a trichotomy within the broad superfamily Musteloidea (Flynn et al., 2001) that also includes the Mephitidae (skunks) and the Procyonidae (raccoons) + Mustelidae (weasels). Unlike the Giant Panda, it is not a bear (Ursidae).

There are two extant subspecies of Red Panda: the Western Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens fulgens) that lives in the western part of its range, and the somewhat larger Styan's Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens styani) that lives in the east-northeastern part of its range. The Western Red Panda has lighter pelage, especially in the face, while the Styan's Red Panda has more dramatic facial markings. The effective population size in the Sichuan population is larger and more stable than that in the Yunnan population, implying a southward expansion from Sichuan to Yunnan. The taxonomic classification of both the Red Panda and Giant Panda has been under debate for many decades, as both species share characteristics of both bears and raccoons. However, they are only very distantly related by remote common ancestry from the Early Tertiary Period. Its common ancestor can be traced back to tens of millions of years ago with a wide distribution across Eurasia. Fossils of the Red Panda have been unearthed from China in the east to Britain (Parailurus anglicus) in the west (Hu, 1990,Ro), and most recently a handful of fossils (Pristinailurus bristoli, Miocene, considered to be a new genus and species of the Red Panda) have also been discovered in North America.


Red Pandas are native to southeastern Asia, along a crescent formed by the Himalaya Mountain foothills from western Nepal, southern Tibet, Bhutan, and Northeast India, then east into the highlands of Burma (or Myanmar), the Gongshan Mountains of Yunnan province in China, and the Hengduan Mountains of Sichuan province in China. The latter area is thought to have been a refuge for Red Pandas, as well as many other animals, during the last (Pleistocene) period of glaciation. The gorge of the Brahmaputra River, as it loops around the eastern end of the Himalayas, is considered a natural division between the two subspecies, although some suggest the A. f. fulgens range extends more eastwardly into Yunnan China. Red pandas used to have a broader distribution farther northeast into China and farther southwest into India.

Red Pandas inhabit climates of moderate temperature (10-25 °C) with little annual fluctuation and prefer forested mountainous areas at elevations of 1,800-4,800 m,or 5000-15,700 ft, particularly temperate deciduous-coniferous forests with an understory of rhododendron and, of course, bamboo. They share habitat with another bamboo specialist, the Giant Panda, in China (Wolong Preserve). Red Pandas are cavity nesters, using rock dens and old hollow trees. They often spend the day drooped over a branch high in the trees, feeding more actively at dawn and dusk. There are also several captive red panda populations living in zoos around the world. The North American captive population is maintained under the Species Survival Plan (SSP), and contained 45 animals as of May 2008. The Toronto Zoo's Red Panda is shown being trained in episodes of Zoo Diaries.

Biology and behaviour

Physical characteristics

The Red Panda is quite long: 79-120 cm, or 31 to 47 in (including the tail length of 30 to 60 cm/12 to 24 in). Males weigh 4.5 to 6.2 kg (10 to 14 lb); females 3 to 4.5 kg (6 to 10 lb). The Red Panda is specialized as a bamboo feeder, with long and soft reddish-brown fur on upper parts, blackish fur on lower parts, light face with tear markings and robust cranial-dental features. The light face has white badges similar to those of a raccoon, but each individual can have distinctive markings. Its roundish head has medium-sized upright ears, a black nose, and very dark eyes: almost pitch black. Its long bushy tail with six alternating yellowish red transverse ocher rings provides balance and excellent camouflage against its habitat of moss- and lichen-covered trees. The legs are black, short and bear-like with thick fur on the soles of the paws hiding scent glands and serving as thermal insulation on snow-covered or ice surfaces. The Red Panda is specialized as a bamboo feeder with strong, curved and sharp semi-retractile claws standing inward for firm grasping to facilitate substantial movement on narrow tree branches and seizing leaves and fruit. Like the Giant Pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), it has a “false thumb” that really is an extension of the wrist bone.


Red Pandas are crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk) and live in the slopes of the south of the Himalayas and the mountainous forests of the southwest of China, at altitudes of up to 4,800 meters, and generally do not venture below 1,800 meters. They are sedentary during the day resting in the branches of trees and in tree hollows and increase their activity only in the late afternoon and/or early evening hours. They are very heat sensitive with an optimal “well-being” temperature between 17 and 25°C, and cannot tolerate temperatures over 25 °C at all. As a result, Red Pandas sleep during the hot noontime in the shady crowns of treetops, often lying stretched out on forked branches or rolled up in tree caves with their tail covering their face

Red Pandas are very skillful and acrobatic animals that live predominantly in trees. They live in territories, frequently alone, and only rarely live in pairs or in groups of families. They are very quiet except for some twittering and whistling communication sounds. They search for food at night, running along the ground or through the trees with speed and agility and, after finding food, use their front paws to place the food into their mouths. Red pandas drink by plunging their paw into the water and licking their paws. Predators of Red Pandas are snow leopards (Uncia uncia), martens (Mustelidae) and humans. The species has also faced a great deal of human-induced habitat destruction.

Red Pandas begin their daily activity with a ritual washing of their fur by licking their front paws and massaging their back, stomach and sides. They also scrub their back and belly along the sides of trees or a rock. They then patrol their territory, marking it with a weak musk-smelling secretion from their anal gland and with their urine.

If a Red Panda feels threatened or senses danger, it will often try to scamper up into an inaccessible rock column or a tree. If they can no longer flee, they stand up on their hind legs, which makes them appear somewhat more daunting and allows them the possibility of using the razor-sharp claws on their front paws, which can inflict substantial wounds. Red Pandas are friendly, but are not helpless, and will resist if they feel threatened.


The Red Panda eats mostly bamboo. Like the Giant Panda, it cannot digest cellulose, so it must consume a large volume of bamboo to survive. Its diet consists of about two-thirds bamboo, but they also eat berries, fruit, mushrooms, roots, acorns, lichen, grasses, and they are known to supplement their diet with young birds, fish, eggs, small rodents, and insects on occasion. In captivity, however, they will readily eat meat. Red Pandas are excellent climbers and forage largely in trees. The Red Panda does little more than eat and sleep due to its low-calorie diet. Bamboo shoots are more easily digested than leaves and exhibited the highest digestibility in the summer and autumn, intermediate in the spring, and low in the winter. These variations correlate with the nutrient contents in the bamboo. The Red Panda poorly processes bamboo, especially the cellulose and cell wall components. This implies that microbial digestion plays only a minor role in its digestive strategy. The transit of bamboo through the red panda gut is very rapid (~2–4 hours). In order to survive on this poor-quality diet, the Red Panda has to select high-quality sections of the bamboo plant such as the tender leaves and shoots in large quantities (over 1.5 kg {3 lbs} of fresh leaves and 4 kg {9 lbs} of fresh shoots daily) that pass through the digestive tract fairly rapidly so as to maximize nutrient intake (Wei et al., 1999).


The Red Panda is a solitary animal, usually seeking a partner only for mating from the end of December to the middle of February. After a gestation period of 112 to 158 days the female gives birth to one to four blind cubs weighing 110-130 g. This occurs between the end of May to the beginning of July. A few days before the birth the female begins to collect material, such as brushwood, grass and sheets, to use for the nest. The nest is normally located in a hollow tree or a rock column.

After the birth the mother cleans the cubs and in this way can immediately recognize each by knowing its smell. After one week the mother leaves the nest to clean herself. The cubs start to open their eyes about 18 days later, but not fully until 30 to 40 days. The eyes are first grey, and after six weeks slowly start to turn dark in colour, becoming fully darkened in about 70 days. The new litter remains at the nest for twelve weeks. After they leave the nest they will remain with their mother, weaning around 6-8 months of age.

The cubs will stay with their mother until the next cubs are born the following summer. The males only very rarely help with the raising of the new generation, and only if they live in pairs or in small groups. Red Pandas start to become sexually mature at about 18 months of age and are fully mature at 2-3 years. Their average lifespan is 8 - 10 years but can reach a maximum of 15 years.

The Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park at Darjeeling has been successful in conservation breeding of Red Pandas.

The Valley Zoo in Edmonton has a successful breeding program and has had two pairs of Red Pandas born there, one pair in 2007 and another pair in 2008.


Red Pandas are classified as endangered. No reliable numbers exist for the total population but it is very threatened due to the fragmentation of its natural habitats, their small numbers, and their food specialization needs. In southwest China the Red Panda is hunted for its fur and especially for its highly-valued bushy tail from which hats are produced. In the areas of China, where the Red Panda lives, their fur is often used for local cultural ceremonies and in weddings the bridegroom traditionally carries the hide. The 'good-luck charm' hats are used by Chinese newlyweds. This, and the continuous clearing of the forests has significantly reduced the population. It is now protected in all countries in which it lives, and the hunting of Red Pandas is illegal everywhere. Nevertheless, poaching continues and they are often illegally hunted and sold to zoos for dumping prices. The IUCN has mandated that small Pandas are a “threatened species“ since 1996, however it is now listed as endangered. It is very difficult to estimate the total population, yet one can assume that they cannot bear much more of a habitat change and that they are in danger of extinction due to the disappearance of the forests and hunting for their highly-valued tails and fur.

The SREL DNA Lab at the University of Georgia has listed several key major threat indications. A 40% decrease in Red Panda populations reported in China over the last 50 years, and those in western/Himalayan areas are considered to be in worse shape. Red Pandas have a naturally low birth rate (usually single or twin births per year) and a high death rate in the wild.

Natural population subdivision by topography and ecology has been worsened by human encroachment, leading to severe fragmentation of the remaining wild population. For example, 40 animals in 4 groups share resources of a preserve in Nepal with 30,000 humans (only 6% of its 1710 km² is preferred red panda habitat). Small groups of animals, with little opportunity for exchange between them, face the risk of inbreeding, decreased genetic diversity, and even extinction. The Red Panda is endangered due to habitat loss caused by deforestation, grazing, and farming. For example government-encouraged cheese production for tourists in Nepal contributed to fuel wood consumption for the factory, overgrazing by chauri (cattle-yak hybrid) impacting bamboo growth, and intrusion by herders and dogs (often attacking cubs). Agricultural terracing is having a detrimental effect on former Red Panda habitat in Nepal. The Red Panda is also poached for good-luck charm' hats for Chinese newlyweds, other fur clothing, and for the illegal pet trade.




  • Listed as Endangered (EN C2a v2.3)
  • IUCN. 1990. 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.
  • ITIS Taxonomical Serial No.: 621846.
  • Mace, G.M. and Balmford, A. (2000). “Patterns and processes in contemporary mammalian extinction.” In Priorities for the Conservation of Mammalian Diversity. Has the Panda had its day?, A. Entwhistle and N. Dunstone (eds). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. pp. 27-52.
  • SREL DNA Lab, University of Georgia, Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL): Red Pandas – Why are we interested in Red Pandas? Retrieved September 25, 2007.
  • SREL DNA Lab, University of Georgia, Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL): Red Pandas – What are they? Retrieved September 25, 2007.
  • SREL DNA Lab, University of Georgia, Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL): Red Pandas - Where do they live? Retrieved September 25, 2007.
  • Wei, Fuwen, Zuojian Feng, Zuwang Wang, Ang Zhou and Jinchu Hu. (1999). “Use of the nutrients in bamboo by the red panda Ailurus fulgens.” Journal of Zoology. Vol. 248. pp. 535-541.
  • Woodland Park Zoological Society: Red Panda.

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