August 2008: The general consensus is that red pandas Ailurus fulgens are related to raccoons, and giant pandas Ailuropoda melanoleuca to bears. But neither the fossil record nor blood protein analysis are able to give us a definitive answer. For now, therefore, the red panda you see in this image has been placed in its own unique family – the Ailuridae and the more famous giant panda in the bear family Ursidae.
Both the red and the giant pandas are found together in the same habitat in Central China, but perhaps because of its more varied diet, the red panda managed to colonise a wider swatch in the verdant mountains of Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar. Totally dependent on trees, these endearing mammals prefer to forage at night for nuts, fruit, eggs and, of course, succulent bamboo (the giant panda’s staple).
Apart from the fur trade, red pandas are losing out to agriculturists and developers (including Indian dam builders) who hack down old growth forests for short-term gain. It hardly helps that young pandas are often captured (after killing the mother) for sale to ignorant, newly-married couples in China who value them as pets that bring good luck.
And, as if life were not hard enough already, human-triggered climate change is bearing down on red pandas, snow leopards, black bears and a host of species with whom they share their forested home. In Bhutan, for instance, glaciers are receding by as much as 30 m. per annum and the resultant ice melt has created as many as 25 dangerous high-altitude lakes that could burst at any moment, with devastating consequences on wildlife and their habitats.
It’s a red alert for pandas and any way you look at it, they could soon be history. But, equally, it’s also a red alert for Homo sapiens. This is something the heads of state, who attended the recent G8 summit at Hokkaido last month, were unable to comprehend. Driven by economic strategies that have directly resulted in the planet’s climate crisis, world leaders cannot see what children can – that cleverly-worded climate action plans will not be worth the paper they are printed on if this red panda’s forest, which sequesters and stores carbon, dies at the altar of old-fashioned economics.
Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXVIII No. 4, August 2008