The red panda faces a shattered future!

The much-loved red panda is known for its tree-climbing ability and adorable nature, but new research shows that the endangered mammal is nearing extinction.

University of Queensland doctoral candidate Damper Besta, who tracked Nepalese red pandas over a 12-month period from Queensland using GPS telemetry, found that human influence is causing the mammals’ movements to be restricted, further fragmenting their habitat.

Mr. Besta said it was a worrying sign.

“Our research results show that current patterns of habitat fragmentation and forest exploitation, from infrastructure projects such as new roads, are placing red pandas under increased threat,” Besta said.

“For this reason, the red panda changes its activity to reduce its interaction with disturbances, such as humans, dogs or livestock, and this greatly interferes with normal interactions between animals, which leads to the isolation of the population.”

Mr. Besta 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 installing cameras in the field, but COVID-19 struck.

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

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

There was a red panda that he watched closely.

The adult male ‘Chintapu’, named after the location where it was found, was known for its wandering nature and within a period of 24 hours, the mammal traveled 5 km which is unheard of for a typical red panda.

So, what next – fresh bamboo, or perhaps a delicacy of wildflowers? “It was during the breeding season,” Mr. Besta explained.

Another red panda that Mr. Besta has followed closely for 12 months is a female “Paaruhaang”, named after a local deity, a female “Mechaachaa” 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. Besta’s research was the fifth known global study conducted on the wild red panda, and only the second in Nepal.

“It is difficult to know how many red pandas remain in the world, but it is estimated that 10,000 may remain in the wild, and between 500 to 1,000 in Nepal,” he said.

“With the findings from this study showing the fragmentation of their environment, as well as a previous study on the effects of poaching, I am concerned about the future of this species.

“While the red panda can adapt to the effects of habitat to some extent, it may be vulnerable to local extinction under these conditions, putting the broader population of the species at risk.”

The decreasing amount of wild forests is forcing red pandas into situations in which they must decide whether to live near predators or adapt to humans, Bista said.

“As you would expect, it is in the animal’s best interest that it avoids predators, but as we continue to build more roads and infrastructure, it greatly reduces the ability of the red panda to do so,” he said.

“With the diminishing availability of suitable forests, it is up to the red panda to evaluate its options on the best way to survive.

“This trade-off could lead to an increased risk of mortality and population decline in the long run.”

This supports the need to reduce human-caused disorders, which is one of the recommendations in the study, he said.

“Our recommendation is that human activities be strictly regulated during most if not all biologically critical times such as the mating, dispersal, and childbirth seasons,” Besta said.

“For conservation programmes, we recommend focusing on identifying environmentally sensitive areas, maintaining habitat continuity, and minimizing projects that would disturb habitats, such as building roads and grazing livestock.

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

The search was published in natural ecology.

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

Red panda video:

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