The Panda That's Not a Bear
The red panda is a reddish brown, bushy-tailed mammal the size of a small dog. The red panda shares its name with the giant panda but, unlike the giant panda, the red panda is not a bear. Scientists believe it is more closely related to raccoons and skunks. The red panda lives in temperate forests from Nepal to southwest China. It feeds on bamboo, is a good climber, and spends most of its life in the trees. Due to poaching and habitat loss, it is now endangered.
How the Red Panda Got Its Name
Red pandas stay together as a group, usually made up of a mother and her cubs. Red pandas spend much of their time in the trees. They come down from the trees to eat bamboo, their favorite food.©K.Feng/GLOBIO.org
The red panda has a cat-like face with long white whiskers. This is how it got its scientific name, Ailurus fulgens, or the "fire-colored cat." The name “panda” comes from the Nepalese word poonya, which means "eater of bamboo." The name was first given to the small animal we now call the red panda. Later, it also became the name of another bamboo eater, the giant panda. The first Europeans called red pandas “wha,” which described the sound the red pandas made when calling to each other.
Life in Ancient Forests
Red pandas have a diet that is almost completely made up of bamboo. They use their strong tongues to strip tender green leaves off the bamboo stem.©K.Feng/GLOBIO.org
Red pandas live in the cooltemperate forests of southwestern China, the Himalayas, and Nepal. Forests of ancient trees, called old-growth forests, are very important to the survival of red pandas. They provide dens and hiding places for the small panda cubs and also for adult pandas. White markings on the red pandas’ faces and black fur on their shoulders and legscamouflage them. This helps them hide from predators in the shadowy forest.
The All-You-Can-Eat Bamboo Bar
Within these forests, grow thick groves of bamboo. Bamboo is the red pandas’ favorite food. Adult red pandas climb down from the treetops to feed in groves of bamboo. They stand on their hind legs and pull the stalks of bamboo over to eat the tender leaves and shoots. Red pandas cannot digest bamboo fiber very well. They have to eat large amounts of bamboo every day to survive. Red pandas also eat grasses, roots, nuts, berries, and lichen. They will even eat insects, birds’ eggs, and chicks.
Each year in June or July, female red pandas give birth to one to four babies. Baby red pandas are called cubs. A cub is born with its eyes closed. After about one week, the cub opens its eyes. It is still very small, weighing only 200g. Cubs are usually born in a hole in an old tree. Mother red pandas line their dens with small sticks and leaves. The dens are high above the ground to keep the cubs safe from predators like the snow leopard.
Red pandas live in temperate forests in China and Nepal. They spend their time in the trees and feed on bamboo. Baby red pandas are born in litters of one to four.©K.Feng/GLOBIO.org
For the first four months, cubs depend on their mother for milk. After that, the mother and her cubs travel through the trees together looking for food. They use the branches like bridges to move from tree to tree. The cubs start to eat bamboo shoots. They also sample other foods like fruits, roots, and ferns.
Built for the Trees
Red pandas are well designed for living in the trees. Their specialized anatomy helps them climb trees and feed on bamboo.
Click on the photo below to discover more about the red panda’s body.
Red Pandas and People
Red pandas are an endangered species. This makes it illegal to hunt them. However, some people still poach red pandas for their beautiful fur. Habitat loss and illegal hunting are the two greatest threats to red panda survival.©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org
The increase in human population in China and Nepal has meant more people cutting down the forests and clearing the land that red pandas use. Today, red pandas have been forced into remote mountains to survive. Red pandas are also prized for their beautiful fur. Many mountain cultures use the fur of the red panda in traditional clothing and costumes. Poaching is against the law everywhere the red panda lives.
Protecting Red Pandas
Few red pandas are hunted today because of new government laws in the countries where they live. No one knows exactly how many red pandas are left in the world. This is because they stay hidden among forest trees and are difficult to locate. But red pandas are becoming more endangered due to loss of their forest habitat. Protecting the forest where red pandas live is the most important key to keeping them from disappearing.