6 min read

Keeping Red Pandas Wild

Pandas are not pets. Sadly, I learned from my colleague Dr. Angela Glatston of the Rotterdam Zoo and an expert on red pandas that the small carnivores are being sold into the pet trade in some Asian markets.

Per the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, it is illegal to keep red pandas in private ownership, anywhere.

A possible surge in the poaching of these animals for the pet industry in Southeast Asia warrants concern. Illegal hunting follows habitat loss as a significant threat to the conservation of red panda, but perhaps poaching for the pet trade may become more critical to the conservation of this species.

The adorable little red panda shares some striking similarities to the iconic giant panda from the high-altitude bamboo forests of north central China. The name panda was, in fact, first given to this red and white colored, cat-sized, crepuscular, arboreal mammal, which really looks more like a raccoon than the larger, black and white panda bear. Eventually the "first" panda to be discovered by scientists was renamed, the "lesser" or "red" panda, and was relegated to relative obscurity when Westerners discovered the giant panda.

Red panda largely eat bamboo, and are native to the Himalayas, overlapping with the giant panda in the eastern part of their range, but the similarities really end there. Again, red panda look more like a raccoons and share an omnivorous diet with the masked bandits from North America. However, the red panda is neither bear nor raccoon.

The "fire cat" or "bear cat," as the red panda is colloquially known in Central Asia, is one of those rare living mammals representing the only animal species of its kind in its respective genus. In other words and scientific terms, the red panda represents a monospecific genus as does the giant panda, making both species the only living members of their respective genera. Genera represented by more than one species like Ursus, the genus used in the scientific nomenclature to designate and classify three bear species in North America (i.e. polar, brown, black) are a polyspecific group.

There are two types or subspecies of red panda, and collectively 10,000 of these animals exist in the wild. Ten thousand may seem like a lot compared to as many as 3,000 giant pandas, but both species are threatened by habitat loss, among other human generated causes.

India's first Prime Minister Jarwhalal Nehru was known to keep captive red pandas, but keeping the keeping of exotic pets is heavily regulated and prohibited in India.

Red pandas may be easy on the eye, but they are wild carnivores and can inflict fairly serious bites. Perhaps more than anywhere else, South Asians have embraced red pandas in their respective cultures.The little panda is the state animal of landlocked Sikkim, India, which is bordered by Nepal, China and Bhutan.

The red panda became known to Western science 50 years prior to the West's knowledge of the giant panda in 1869. Taxonomists, zoologists who classify animal species, have had great difficulty determining the closest living relatives of the red panda, but they have determined that, for certain, they are not closely related to bears.

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