Red pandas face a fractured future

The much-loved red panda is famous for its tree-climbing ability and lovable nature, but new research shows the endangered mammal is edging closer to extinction.

University of Queensland PhD candidate Damber Bista, who tracked red pandas in Nepal over a 12-month period from Queensland using GPS telemetry, found that human impact is causing the mammal to restrict its movements, further fragmenting their habitat.

Bista said that was a worrying sign.

“Our research findings show that current patterns of habitat fragmentation and logging, from infrastructure projects such as new roads, are putting the red panda under increased threat,” Bista said.

“Because of this, red pandas are changing their activity to minimize their interactions with disturbances, such as humans, dogs or livestock, and this is drastically interfering with natural interactions between the animals, resulting in population isolation.”

Bista has been studying red pandas for several years, and in late 2019, he traveled to Nepal, where he tagged red pandas with collars that allow him to track their movements via satellite.

He returned to Australia in January 2020, intending to return to Nepal in a few months to continue monitoring the animals and install cameras in the field, but COVID-19 hit.

“Satellite tracking allowed me to remotely monitor red pandas here in Brisbane, while relying on my friends and colleagues in Nepal to set up cameras and conduct field surveys,” he said.

“It was a surreal experience, I was spending many hours a day during the COVID lockdowns at home, watching the movement of the red pandas in Nepal on my computer.”

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There was a red panda that I kept a close eye on.

An adult male “Chintapu”, named after the place where it was found, was known for its itinerant nature and in a 24-hour period the mammal traveled 5 km, unheard of for a typical red panda.

So what came next, fresh bamboo or maybe a wildflower delicacy? “It was during breeding season,” Bista explained.

Other red pandas that Bista closely followed for 12 months included a “Paaruhaang” female, named after a local deity, a “Mechaachaa” female meaning daughter and “Ninaammaa” meaning Queen of Heaven in the local dialect.

There was also “Brian”, named after the founder of the Red Panda Network.

Mr Bista’s research was the world’s fifth known study of wild red pandas, and only the second in Nepal.

“It’s hard to know how many red pandas are left in the world, but there are an estimated 10,000 left in the wild and between 500 and 1,000 are in Nepal,” he said.

“With the findings of this study showing habitat fragmentation, coupled with a previous study on the impacts of poaching, I am concerned about the future of this species.

“While red pandas can adapt to habitat impacts to some extent, they may be susceptible to local extinction under these conditions, putting the broader population of the species at risk.”

Bista said the shrinking amount of wild forest forces the red panda into situations where it must decide whether to live closer to predators or adapt to co-exist with humans.

“Unsurprisingly, it’s in an animal’s best interest to avoid its predators, but as we continue to build more roads and infrastructure, that drastically reduces the red pandas’ ability to do this,” he said.

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“As the availability of suitable forest shrinks, it’s up to the red panda to weigh its options on how best to survive.

“This trade-off may lead to increased mortality risk and long-term population decline.”

He said this supported the need to minimize human-induced disturbance, which is one of the recommendations made in the study.

“Our recommendation is that human activities be tightly regulated during most, if not all, biologically crucial times, such as mating, dispersal and calving seasons,” Bista said.

“As for conservation programs, we recommend that they focus on identifying ecologically sensitive areas, maintaining habitat continuity, and minimizing projects that disturb habitats, such as road building and cattle grazing.

“If road construction cannot be avoided, we suggest avoiding central areas and restrictions on speed limits and noise, and increasing wildlife crossings in high-risk areas.”

The research is published in landscape ecology.

This research was a collaborative effort between the University of Queensland, the University of Southern Queensland, Red Panda Network and Rotterdam Zoo.

Red panda video: https://youtu.be/OrO-aVYRZ3Q