Sighting a red panda in the wild is good luck


From becoming endangered to having a beer named after them, the red pandas are an icon of Bhutan.

The red panda is not a panda. It’s a cousin of the giant panda and the raccoon, the latter of which has a similar ringed tail as it.

More accurately, they are considered members of their own unique family: the Ailuridae; scientific name: Ailurus fulgens, a name it received in 1825.

The name “panda” only came later on because of the similarities the animal shares with the better known black-and-white giant, such as eating bamboo. Another theory suggests that the name came from the Nepali word “ponya”, which means “bamboo eater” or “bamboo footed”. 

The red pandas live in rainy, high-altitude forests. They can be found in the mountains of Nepal, northern Myanmar (Burma), central China, and of course, Bhutan.

In Bhutan, red pandas have been spotted in seventeen districts, including seven of the ten protected areas. There have been sightings in all the eight biological corridors too.

Sighting a red panda in the wild is rare. The Bhutanese consider it good luck. 

More about the red pandas

Red pandas usually grow to the size of a house cat, but the extravagant bushy tail at the end of their rears adds an additional 18 inches. 

These tails aren’t just for aesthetics. They provide balance and keep the red pandas steady as they walk along rock ledges and tree branches.

Unlike other mammals, red pandas don’t hibernate through the winter. Thus, their thick fur protects them from the cold, wind, and other harsh weather. In fact, they love snow! This brings us to the other function of the tail — a wraparound blanket to keep warm in the cold mountains.

The red pandas live and sleep in trees, where they hunker during the day. Dusk, dawn, and night are when they are at their most active.

Diet-wise, red pandas love bamboo. But that is not all they eat. They also enjoy fruit, acorns, roots, and eggs. To grip the food, they use an extended wrist bone that works like a thumb.

When mating, red pandas are shy and live in solitary. The females reproduce one to four younglings during spring and summer. The younglings stay under the mother’s care for 90 days; the males are not involved in raising their offspring.

When red pandas communicate with each other, they squeal, twitter, hiss, and grunt. Babies sometimes whistle or bleat in a high-pitch tone. But this is just one way of communication, because they use scent marks more often, achieved by urinating or rubbing their tails against a surface with a wriggle dance—there are scent glands on their tail, as well as between their footpads.

To leave a scent, they expel a liquid that is colourless and odourless to the human nose. While the liquid mean nothing to humans, it notifies the other red pandas of important information like the owner’s sex, age, fertility, and more. 

When a red panda encounters a new scent, it uses its tongue to test the odour. Cone-like structures under its tongue collect the liquid to deliver into a gland inside the mouth where the scent is interpreted. The red panda is the only carnivore in the world that can do this.

Efforts to conserve the red pandas

Intriguing as the red panda is, misfortune has befallen. The red panda has been listed as endangered on the IUCN red list. There are less than 10,000 mature red pandas in the world today. 

The red pandas need a habitat to survive. But with climate change, developmental activities, and illegal trading, their habitat has suffered a slow yet incessant degradation. With lost habitat came the endangerment of the species.

Not one to rest on their laurels, Bhutan launched a five-year action plan to conserve the red pandas.

The primary goal of the action plan is to protect the viable populations of red pandas. The first step was to map out critical red panda habitats for intervention. Next, restoration efforts were taken through 

  • scientific study
  • habitat management
  • conservation outreach
  • strengthened law enforcement
  • capacity building of professionals and communities
  • improved policy and 
  • partnership development. 

Another effort that was established to protect the red pandas was the Red Panda Survey Protocol, developed by the Nature Conservation Division of the Bhutan Department of Forest and Park Services. The aim was to train senior forest staff to conduct field research in Samtse, Dagana, and Haa. 

The project was a collaboration between Charles Sturt University, Australia, the Government of Bhutan, World Wildlife Fund, Red Panda Network and Australian Landcare International. It was funded by the UK Darwin Initiative Fund from 2016 to 2019. 

The area of interest of the project was the severe land degradation that led to red panda habitat loss in Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (SWS) in remote eastern Bhutan. SWS has rich biodiversity including the endangered red panda.

There is a beer named after the red panda

Most interestingly, the cute, cuddly red pandas have a beer named after them! The iconic Red Panda Weiss Beer of Bhutan is brewed at Bumthang Brewery, which is run by a Swiss national who married a Bhutanese. It is the only foreign-owned beer in Bhutan.

The beer is a cloudy yellow colour and spots a thin white head. It’s a delicious beer well loved by locals and tourists alike.

More delicious, however, is admiring a red panda in real life. Two places where you stand a chance to do so are:

Remember, sighting a red panda in the wild is good luck!

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