Range:

South-central Asia to southern China

Habitat:

High elevations in temperate bamboo forests, rain forest

Seeing red—pandas!

Many people admire the red panda for its charming, kitten-like face, cinnamon red fur, fluffy ringed tail, and astonishing agility. The black-and-white giant panda may have worldwide popularity, but the bewitching and arboreal “other bamboo eater” has its own allure. Surprisingly, red panda fossils have been discovered in North America that date as far back as 5 million years. Today, however, red pandas are only found in small, isolated mountain territories above 4,000 feet in China, Nepal, India, Bhutan, and Burma.

Fire cats

It may seem like the roly-poly giant panda was the first true panda, and the red panda was added for fun. But French zoologist Frédéric Cuvier first described the western red panda Ailurus fulgens fulgens in 1825, 48 years before the black-and-white bear was cataloged. After examining a red panda, he said it was the most beautiful animal he had ever seen and named it Ailurus (from the Greek word ailouros, which means cat, and fulgens, meaning fire-colored or shining. In 1897, F. W. Styan discovered another form of red panda and named it Ailurus fulgens styani, now refulgens. The Styans' panda is a bit larger and more brightly colored than the western red panda.

So how did this Asian animal come to be called a panda? The origin of the name “panda” is unclear. Many people believe it derives from the second part of an old Nepalese name for these animals, nigalya ponya, which may have meant something like "bamboo footed.” Another local name for the red panda is wah or chitwah.

In China, red pandas and giant pandas share the same habitat: bamboo forests.
Red pandas have powerful molars for chewing on tough bamboo and are mostly vegetarians—although they are classified as carnivores.
Bamboo is not a great food source for energy and is hard to digest. Red pandas need to eat 20 to 30 percent of their body weight each day—about 2 to 4 pounds (1 to 2 kilograms) of bamboo shoots and leaves.
The Chinese name for the red panda is "hun-ho," meaning “fire fox.”
The first known written record of the red panda occurred in a 13th-century Chinese scroll.
Red pandas were described to Western science in 1825—more than 40 years before giant pandas were scientifically described in 1869.
Red pandas digest only 24 percent of the bamboo they eat.
In one study, female red pandas ate approximately 20,000 bamboo leaves in a single day.
Almost half of the red pandas’ total body length is in the tail.

Our first red pandas (four of them) came to the San Diego Zoo in 1940; 30 births were recorded between 1941 and 1954! We have maintained both subspecies over the years, although we’ve only had breeding success with the western red pandas, the most recent litter being born in 2006.

Currently, the Zoo’s Panda Trek exhibit is home to two western red pandas, Lily and Flynn. Lily has a whiter face and Flynn has more reddish flecks on the side of his face. They were both born in 2011, so are still young, but we hope this pair will bring us new little ones to admire. They can often be seen sleeping up high in the Chinese elm trees. Red pandas are very intelligent animals that enjoy training; some of our goals are to train Lily for ultrasound procedures so that we can confirm pregnancy as she begins breeding. Lily and Flynn’s bedrooms are air conditioned to provide extra temperature control for the red pandas in the summer.

Red panda numbers may have decreased by as much as 40 percent over the last 50 years. Today the adult population is probably around 10,000 animals. People clearing forests for farming and grazing, as well as hunting and the pet trade, have drastically reduced the number of red pandas—some estimate that only 2,500 adult red pandas remain in the wild. Red panda are hunted for their pelts, which are made into fur capes and hats. Sometimes, red pandas are caught in snares set out for wild pigs, deer, and takins.

On the positive side, there are now worldwide efforts in place to save red pandas. Some habitat has been designated as protected areas. There are 20 such protected areas in India, 35 in China, 8 in Nepal, and 5 in Bhutan. San Diego Zoo Global supports the Red Panda Network, a nonprofit organization that identifies unprotected red panda habitat and trains “forest guardians” to conduct awareness-building workshops on red pandas at local villages and work with villagers to establish new protected areas. Forest guardians also continue baseline research and monitoring of red panda populations.

At the San Diego Zoo, our red pandas serve as excellent ambassadors for their species, and we hope they motivate our guests to help save wildlife. San Diego Zoo Global participates in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan (SSP) for red pandas. The mission of an SSP program is to cooperatively manage threatened or endangered species populations within managed-care facilities. Working together, we can save this beautiful and appealing animal.