The Panda is a Panda!

“The panda is a panda,” boldly declared German biologist, George B. Schaller, in his 1994 book, The Last Panda. After nearly five years documenting the mammal’s behavior in the forests of the Wolong and Tangjiahe, Schaller was delighted to admit that “in spite of its being dissected, observed, measured, and subjected to a host of advanced molecular techniques, the giant panda still cannot be neatly categorized.” He goes on to muse: “Just as I hope that there is a yeti (Bigfoot) but that it will never be found, so I would like the panda to retain this minor mystery.”

Much to Schaller’s intellectual satisfaction, anatomists, behaviorists, paleontologists, molecular biologists, conservationists and conservation writers alike, have all derived their own puzzling conclusions regarding the appropriate classification of this species. Though my role in untangling this mystery can be neatly categorized into that of “conservation writer,” the same cannot be said for the taxonomic labeling of a panda—giant, red or otherwise.

Controversy over nomenclature was reportedly first sparked in 1825, when French zoologist and paleontologist, Frédéric Cuvier (younger brother of famed naturalist Georges Cuvier who was head keeper of the menagerie at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris), discovered a bamboo-munching mammal in the Szechuan mountains of China.

In the high-altitude temperate forest, this peculiar creature clung to a branch covered in clumps of reddish-brown moss and white lichens. Camouflaged within the canopy of fir trees, the arboreal acrobat was identified by its woolly rusty coat and bushy ringed tail. Frédéric Cuvier observed how the creature—not much larger than a house cat—appeared to wear a white mask with reddish-brown “tear” marks that extended from the eyes to the corner of the mouth. Its tail was long and striped with alternating red and buff colors, and dense fur-covered five-toed paws and semi-retractable claws.

A raccoon? A bear? A cat? A bear-cat? A fire-cat? He wondered.

After some time, and much consideration, Cuvier arrived at the scientific name, Ailurus fulgens. Ailurus (from the Greek word “ailouros,” which means cat) and fulgens, (meaning “fire-colored” or “shining”).

Today, we know this adorable anatomical anomaly as a red panda. And thanks to years of scientific inquiry and research, we have also determined that there are two distinct species of red panda: Ailurus fulgens fulgens and Ailurus fulgens styani (or Ailurus fulgens refulgens). The latter is found in eastern Arunachal Pradesh, Myanmar and parts of China (Yunnan, Szechuan and eastern Tibet), and tends to be larger and deeper red in color. The former lives in Nepal, northeastern India (West Bengal, Sikkim, western Arunachal Pradesh), Bhutan and southern Tibet.

As for our larger, mono-chromed friend—genome sequencing has unequivocally revealed the giant panda to be the earliest descendent of the Ursus (bear) lineage that diverged some 20 million years ago. Despite this scientific confirmation, George B. Schaller upholds the belief that homogenizing the panda into the family Ursidae destroys its uniqueness.

Perhaps, then, he seeks some comfort in knowing that the red panda has retained its mythical otherness over the centuries by existing as the only living members of their taxonomic family, Ailuridae.

Cute red panda laying down.

Red Pandas: The True Pandas

Here is another controversial opinion…The red panda is the “original” (or only) true panda. Though the giant panda is adored by the world and celebrated as a national treasure in China, it is not technically a “true” panda. Giant pandas were described much later (not until 1869) by Western scientists and earned their “panda” name because of the similarities the two species shared: their teeth, hairy underpaws and most notably, their penchant for bamboo.

Studies of their evolutionary history show that red pandas are an ancient species most closely related to skunks, raccoons and weasels. Red pandas are carnivores by nature, but behavior dictates they are more like opportunistic omnivores. Red pandas forage for roots, grasses, fruits, insects and grubs and sometimes hunt birds and small mammals if the conditions are favorable. However, bamboo comprises 95% of their diet. Unlike giant pandas that feed on nearly every above-ground portion of bamboo (including the culm, or woody stem), red pandas feed selectively on the nutritious leaf tips and tender shoots. Red pandas do, however, share the giant panda’s pseudo-thumb, a modified wrist bone used to grasp bamboo when feeding. Aptly, the name panda is believed to come from the Nepali word “ponya,” meaning “bamboo eater” or “bamboo footed.”

Bamboo-footed indeed. Red pandas are crepuscular (active primarily at dawn and dusk) and spend most of their time in trees—either climbing them or sleeping in them. Their arboreal skills are owed to evolutionary biology. Red pandas have extraordinarily flexible ankles and their fibula and tibia are attached in such a way as to allow the fibula to rotate about its axis—aiding red pandas as they climb down tree trunks headfirst. Sharp claws and fur-covered feet enhance their grip, while the tail helps them balance along the branches. Even the red panda’s tear tracks are rumored to play a role in dexterity. Scientists reason the dark pattern evolved to help keep the sun out of the panda’s eyes as they traverse the treetops.

Red pandas have also adapted to expend as little energy as sloths in order to weather the cold temperatures of their mountainous homes. They become dormant by lowering their metabolic rate and only raising it a few hours a day to forage for food. Pandas are born completely covered in fur to protect themselves from the harsh elements and use their bushy tails as shields from bitter winds. Curling into a tight ball is an added layer of armor, conserving body heat and energy.

Red panda climbs a tree.

Red Panda on the Red List

Despite all of the red panda’s evolutionary adaptations, this mammal cannot compete with the ever-growing anthropogenic threats. With less than 10,000 individuals remaining in the wild, red pandas are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has prioritized four major categories of action: protect against habitat loss, reduce habitat degradation, reduce human-induced deaths of red pandas and improve awareness.

Red pandas are legally protected in India, Bhutan, China, Nepal and Myanmar. Despite regulations, red pandas contend with disease from domestic dogs, the cultivation of croplands (which reduce available food and shelter), and herds of livestock that graze on bamboo leaves and further degrade critical habitat. Throughout Asia, red pandas are trafficked in the exotic pet trade and are often poached for their valued pelts, meat and other parts. Most devastating of all: the logging industry— which has contributed to deforestation and fragmentation and thus, increased panda population isolation and inbreeding. These threats are compounded by climate change and natural disasters, inadequate law enforcement and corruption and minimal interest from local governments in red panda conservation.

Conservation issues are further augmented by the highly specific set of circumstances required to optimize species survival. The red panda checklist is as follows: high altitude, appropriate forest cover, close proximity to water sources and of course, sufficient supply of bamboo. As human encroachment increases, unique panda habitat disappears, and with it—the unique red panda.

The red panda playing with a plant.

Wild Encounters in China

 World Wildlife Fund and Natural Habitat Adventures work tirelessly to protect pandas by securing prime habitat through nature reserves and curating carbon-neutral conservation travel that supports local communities and educates guests through encounters with endangered wildlife. Ecotourism provides an alternative method for generating income among communities who share panda habitat, encouraging sustainable land use and the reduction of hunting and capture of pandas.

The Wild Side of China: A Nature Odyssey is set deep in the Minshan Mountains of Sichuan province where rarely-visited enclaves harbor moon bears, golden snub-nosed monkeys, Tibetan macaques, blue sheep, red pandas and giant pandas. On days four and five of the itinerary, guests venture into the Wild Panda Reserve, a 100,000-acre sanctuary and global biodiversity hotspot where up to 60 giant pandas can be observed.

This lush ecosystem also serves as the perfect backdrop to challenge how pandas should be assessed by scientists, depicted by artists and writers and memorialized by wildlife photographers. Before embarking on your next adventure with us, check out these fascinating facts about red pandas and learn how you can play a role in conserving giant pandas from home!

If you book a spot on one of our 2022 or 2023 departures, be sure to let your Expedition Leaders know what you think about the great panda debate. Perhaps they will have a novel theory of their own…