The Red Panda is a small arboreal mammal and the only species of the genus Ailurus. Slightly larger than a domestic cat, it has reddish-brown fur, a long, shaggy tail, and a waddling gait due to its shorter front legs. It eats mainly bamboo, but is omnivorous and may also eat eggs, birds, insects, and small mammals. It is a solitary animal, mainly active from dusk to dawn, and is largely sedentary during the day.
Endemic to the temperate forests of the Himalayas, the Red Panda ranges from Nepal in the west to China in the east. It is also found in northern India, Bhutan and northern Myanmar. Accurate population figures in the wild are difficult to find, with estimates ranging from 11,000 to 20,000 worldwide. Although it is protected by law in all countries where it lives, its numbers in the wild continue to decline mainly due to habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, and inbreeding depression.
The Red Panda is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN red list (2009.01), and is listed in CITES appendix I. It has been previously classified in the families Procyonidae (raccoon) and Ursidae (bears), but recent research has placed it in its own family Ailuridae, in superfamily Musteloidea along with Mustelidae, Procyonidae, and Mephitidae. Two subspecies are recognized.The Red Panda is quite adaptable to living in captivity and is common in zoos worldwide. As of 2006 the international studbook listed more than 800 individuals in zoos and parks around the world.
The head and body of the Red Panda is 56 to 63 cm (22 to 25 in) long, and their tail is 37 to 47 cm (15 to 19 in) long. Males weigh 3.7 to 6.2 kg (8 to 14 lb) and females weigh 4.2 to 6.0 kg (9 to 13 lb). It has long, soft reddish-brown fur on its upper parts, blackish fur on its lower parts, and a light face with tear markings and robust cranial-dental features. The light face has white badges similar to those of a raccoon, but each individual can have distinctive markings. Its roundish head has medium-sized upright ears, a black nose, and very dark eyes: almost pitch black. Its long bushy tail with six alternating yellowish red transverse ochre rings provides balance and excellent camouflage against its habitat of moss- and lichen-covered trees. The legs are black and short with thick fur on the soles of the paws. This fur serves as thermal insulation on snow-covered or ice surfaces and conceals scent glands which are also present on the anu*.
The Red Panda is specialized as a bamboo feeder with strong, curved and sharp semi-retractile claws standing inward for grasping of narrow tree branches, leaves and fruit. Like the Giant Panda, it has a “false thumb” that is an extension of the wrist bone.
The Red Panda has been reported to be both nocturnal (most active at night) and crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk), sleeping on tree branches or in tree hollows during the day and increasing its activity only in the late afternoon and early evening hours. It sleeps stretched out on a branch with legs dangling when it is hot, and curled up with its tail over its face when it is cold. It is very heat sensitive, with an optimal “well-being” temperature between 17 and 25 °C (63 and 77 °F), and cannot tolerate temperatures over 25 °C (77 °F).
Shortly after waking, the Red Panda cleans its fur like a cat, licking its front paws and then rubbing its back, stomach and sides. It also rubs its back and belly along the sides of trees or rocks. Then it patrols its territory, marking it with a weak musk-smelling secetion from its ana* gland and with its urine. It searches for food at night, running along the ground or through the trees. It uses its front paws to place the food into its mouth, and drinks by plunging a paw into the water and then licking the paw.
There are two extant subspecies of Red Panda. The Western Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens fulgens F. G. Cuvier, 1825) lives in the western part of its range (Nepal, Assam, Sikkim and Bhutan), and the somewhat larger Styan’s Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens styani Thomas, 1902]) lives in the east-northeastern part of its range (southern China and northern Myanmar). The Styan’s Red Panda is supposedly larger and darker in color than its Western cousin, though there is considerable variation in both subspecies, and some individuals may be brown or yellowish brown rather than red.