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The red panda is an animal that lives in mountain forests in an area that extends from Nepal to northern Burma to central China. They live in trees, look sort of like racoons, and have reddish fur and a long bushy tail. With an estimated population of less than 10,000, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified the red panda as "vulnerable" due to the destruction of its habitat.

In China the red panda is sometimes called a nine-section fox because of the nine red and yellow rings on its tail. The French priest David once said, "They are called by the Chinese 'babies in the mountain' because their sounds are similar to that of young babies." In China, the red panda is mainly distributed in the northwest edge and west edge of the Sichuan Basin and the southwest mountains of Sichuan province. In China’s National List for Specially Protected Wild Animals, it is listed in Appendices II. It's a species threatened to be extinct. [Source: Science Museum of China]

Red pandas (Ailurus fulgens) have a body length of 40-60 centimeters and a tail that is 30-50 centimeters long and weigh about five kilograms. They live in forests in high mountains and catch small animals with their paws and teeth and eat bamboo leaves, leaves of trees, fruits, small birds and bird eggs. In China they can be found in west Yunnan, west Sichuan and southeastern Tibet. They are regarded as threatened not endangered species.

History and Range of Red Pandas

Red pandas are also known as lesser pandas. They were first described in Western science in 1821, 48 years before giant pandas were discovered by Westerners. When the large black and white pandas were discovered they were named “giant” pandas while the red one became “lesser pandas” For a long time it was thought that red pandas and giant pandas belonged to the same family but recent analysis based on genetics and molecular biology techniques have determined that giant pandas are indeed a member of the bear family while red pandas are so different from bears as well as giant pandas and raccoons they should be put in their own unique group.

Between 20 million and 40 million years ago red pandas and raccoons split from a common ancestor that also produced bears. Some scientists say the red panda belongs in the same family of animals as cotamundis in Latin America.

Red pandas are more widely distributed than giant pandas. Found in the Himalayan intersectional mountain range, they live mainly in forests and bamboo thickets of the temperate zone, from the southern edge of the Himalayas of east Nepal to the mountains of north Myanmar to the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. Prime habitats are dense temperate forests at elevations between 1,800 meters and 4,000 meters Red Pandas prefer elevations between 2,000 meters and 3,500 meters in mountainous areas of China and the forested southern slopes and foothills of the Himalayas.

Red Panda Characteristics

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Red pandas are thickly furred and have black hair on their stomach, chest and legs; red hair on their back and sides; a red-and-black stripped furry tail and a red racoon-like face with white patches. The red panda’s coat is long and soft and darker underneath. Its underside is black while its head is whitish, with almost white ear rims, cheeks, muzzle and spots above the eyes. Its back is rust brown or chestnut. The tail is rust brown with black and pale-colored rings. There are also brown facial “teardrop” stripes.

Adult red pandas stand about 20 centimeters at the shoulder and weigh between three and six kilograms. Their head and body length is 50 to 64 centimeters. The tail is about 28 to 50 centimeters in length. The head is unusually large and the snout is pointed. The legs are short and bearlike and the feet have sharp and semi-retractile claws.

According to Chinese scientists: Living in the broadleaved forest, theropencedrymion and coniferous forest, the red panda often moves around in the bamboo below the woods. In summer, it prefers to live in the shady slope of a river valley while in winter it often moves to the sunny slope or a flat-topped ridge to have a sunbathing. Although preferring warm environment, the red panda has good resistance to coldness. Red pandas almost eat only bamboo; yet, unlike giant pandas, they do not eat bamboo stalks, but only bamboo leaves or shoots according to different seasons. Besides, they also eat a variety of wild fruits such as the chokeberries, gooseberries and few other fruits. [Source: Science Museum of China]

Red Panda Behavior

The fact that red pandas and giants pandas were first grouped into same family and given the same name is related in part to the fact that they both primarily eat bamboo and both have similar anatomical adaptions for eating bamboo. Red pandas feed mostly on bamboo shoots and leaves, succulent plants, grasses, roots and fruits and sometimes on eggs, chicks and small vertebrates like lizards and mice. They mainly consume three species of bamboo. When they drink they may plunge a paw into the water and then lick the paw. The have developed an extra digit on the their front paws, similar to those of the giant panda, that allow them to grasp bamboo.

Red pandas can stand up for long periods of time on their hind legs. They seem to do this in the wild to get a better view and sniff the air. Its posture and strange expression on its face makes a red panda on its hind legs an inviting target for photographers and wisecracks. One red panda at a zoo in Japan assumed the upright posture once or twice a day for about 10 seconds after he ate bamboo leaves for lunch. Large crowds showed up to witness the spectacle.

According to Chinese scientists one difference between red pandas and giant pandas is that red pandas live in families while giant pandas often live alone. Red pandas sometimes live in a small group of three to five and move about in a relatively certain area in the morning and evening. Typically though red pandas live alone or in pairs and are mainly nocturnal. They form pairs in the mating season. They are is mostly active from dusk to dawn and frequently wash themselves like a cat with their tongue, first licking the soles of the feet and then using the moistening soles to clean the fur. Red pandas mark their territories with droppings, urine and powerful musk-like secretions from the anal glands.

Red pandas spend much of their time in trees and are good at climbing trees. They can climb down tree head first and sleep curled up in high branches. The red panda’s sharp claws and small size allow it to climb rapidly through trees. When it rests it does so with its legs dangling in the air and its body lying on the branch. Red pandas use trees as food sources and to escape ground-based predators. They like to sunbathe high in the canopy during the winter. During the daytime, red pandas rest in the forks of trees and they move around most frequently at dusk and in early morning. They have the habit of defecating in fixed places. Their vocalizations include short whistles and squeals.

Red Panda Mating, Young and Old

Red Panda usually rut and mates in spring. After four months’ pregnancy, the female typically gives birth to two or three cubs, and one or five in rare cases. The young are born in the spring after a gestation period of about 130 days (which is made up of a 90-day true gestation plus variable time of delayed implantation). The female’ nest may be in a tree a tree hole, lined with leaves, moss, and other plant material. Other nesting sites include branch forks, tree roots and bamboo thickets.

Young red pandas are white after their birth and they change into deep gray one week later. When young red pandas grow up, they gradually change into colors similar with their parents. Two-month-old cubs are about 35 centimeters in length and weigh 1.6 kilograms. They trot after their mother and play with each other. The young nurse for a few months and are completely self-sufficient after several months, but may remain with their mother for more than a year. They are vulnerable to attacks from large predatory birds such as hawks and vultures.

Red pandas breed and do fairly well in captivity. About a third of the world’s captive red pandas (230 individuals) are in Japan. About half of Japan’s zoos have at least one red panda. A red panda at a zoo in Kitakyushu, Japan was still alive at 23 years and 4 months in 2014. [Source:, Yomiuri Shimbun, November 4, 2014]

Red Panda Escapees and Visitors

In 2016 Travel + Leisure reported: “Three red pandas took full advantage of a weather-induced opportunity last winter and escaped from their home in the Hangzhou Zoo. A branch in the pandas' cage broke under the weight of the snow, giving the trio a chance to experience a bit of the great outdoors. Two of the adventurous pandas were located and returned to their cage shortly after escaping. But the third managed to extend the vacation from the zoo for eight months. A whopping 242 days after making an escape, the panda was spotted in a tree near the zoo. Maybe it was missing its caged kin, maybe it was hungry. Either way, zoo employees rushed to the scene and attempted to woo the red panda down from its tree with apples. The team set up a net at the bottom of the tree and used a tranquilizer gun, and the panda was captured (unharmed).[Source: Travel + Leisure Staff, August 6, 2016]

The Telegraph reported: A rare red panda became a surprise house guest just before Christmas for one family in the Chinese city of Leshan The red panda turned up at the home of a Chinese family in the suburbs of Leshan, a city located in southwest China's Sichuan Province. "We were having a meal outside our home and saw it climbing down the slope toward us. We approached it slowly, leaving the door of our house open, and then the red panda suddenly rushed inside," said the homeowner. The creaturesoon became a draw in the local neighbourhood as food and warmth encouraged the wild animal to stay put. Neighbours arrived to have their pictures taken with the rare panda, which is classed as an endangered species. After a short stay the panda was released back into the wild by local authorities. [Source: The Telegraph website]

Image Sources: 1) Chinese Academy of Sciences; 2) Kostich; 3,5) Julie Chao ; 4) Tooter for Kids; 6, 7) WWF

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

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