According to a new report from The New York Times (NYT), the cutest animal on the planet is in serious trouble -- the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that there are only 10,000 red pandas left in the wild, and the organization has listed them as "vulnerable," which is just one step below "endangered."
Now, some scientists are trying to get them moved up to "endangered" list ASAP. According to the NYT report, this is why:
Their homes are disappearing
Red pandas live "in mixed forests with an undergrowth of bamboo, at an altitude of 4,600 to 15,000 feet," according to the NYT, which means there are only a few places where they can live. And those places are disappearing. All the ones living in the wild that we know about currently live in the same narrow stretch of mountainsides running from western China to Nepal, all of which are threatened by deforestation.
Part of the reason red pandas have been difficult to protect is that it's hard to observe them in the wild. Elizabeth Freeman, a conservation biologist at George Mason University and a research associate at the Smithsonian institute told the NYT they're hoping that zoo programs will help them to "answer very basic questions" about the pandas' biology, health, and mating habits that are still a mystery. Efforts to understand and help protect red pandas are just starting out, and according to the report are "at the point at which work on giant pandas was 50 years ago."
They're the only species in their family
The red panda's closest relative is probably the racoon, but according to the NYT, "their ancestors and raccoon ancestors split into separate evolutionary lineages about 26 million years ago. And they are not closely related to giant pandas, although both feed on bamboo. The giant panda is in the bear family, and the red panda is the only species in the family Ailuridae." Red panda expert Dr. Angela Glatston told the NYT that because they're the only ones in the family, if red pandas became extinct, it would be “like losing the whole cat family, from lions to domestic cats.”
Only half of the babies bred in captivity survive
Although there are several sites attempting to breed red pandas, including the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in the Virginia, only about half the babies survive, "and researchers say that is probably because mothers do not provide enough milk or care for the young properly. No one knows whether similar problems exist in the wild," according to the NYT. Dr. Freeman also pointed out that red panda biology is tricky, so they often "can't even confirm that they're pregnant."
When a vet did a survey of red pandas in captivity, she found that "dental disease was an issue as well as fractured tails," according to the NYT -- and she figured out that the broken tails were probably due to fighting. She later reported that red pandas don't like social housing, but prefer to be alone -- another factor that makes them harder to observe in the wild, and by extension, harder to protect.
Climate change is a huge threat
“I think down the road what may actually do them in is climate change,” Dr. Freeman told the NYT. “Because they are in such a small niche in the Himalayas, and as climate change warms that area and moves that population higher in elevation, they’re going to lose habitat probably faster than they can accommodate to climate change" -- which could potentially be an even bigger problem than habitat destruction. She also said, "I see them as being a critical indicator species for the health of the Himalayan ecosystem, probably more so than giant pandas.”
There's only one organization fighting exclusively for red pandas
Although some organizations here and in China are helping with conservation efforts, only one -- the Red Panda Network -- is devoted exclusively to the Red Panda. The San Francisco and Kathmandu-based nonprofit works to stop deforestation in Nepal and pays local "forest guardians" to monitor red pandas and keep an eye out for threats. For a one-time or monthly donation of $5, you can "adopt" a red panda in Nepal to help them out -- they'll even send you an "adoption certificate."