Save the red panda before it is too lateThe lovable Himalayan mammal is being cornered from all sides due to habitat loss.
The charismatic red panda attracts a significant amount of attention from conservation stakeholders, including locals, national and international non-governmental organisations, and the government. Even then, the Himalayan mammal faces tremendous survival challenges. Coordinated and well-designed actions from the grassroots to the policymaking level are essential to address these challenges for the conservation of the red panda in Nepal.
Ailuridae family is generally considered as a monotypic family (with red panda being the single extant species), providing a strong rationale for a greater emphasis to be placed for the conservation of species. Some studies consider the Himalayan red panda (Ailurus fulgens fulgens) and the Chinese red panda (Ailurus fulgens styani) to be two different species. But their endangered status in the IUCN Red List provides an adequate rationale for the need for greater emphasis for conservation in Nepal and elsewhere.
The red panda has been found from temperate forests in the altitudinal range of 2,500 metres to 4,800 metres in five Asian countries, namely China, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and India. Of the total predicted habitat, the geographic extent in Nepal is second only to China's with 20,150 square kilometres (17.42 percent of the total). In Nepal, they have been recorded in 10 protected areas in the Himalayan region. The National Red Panda Survey, conducted in 2016, recorded their presence in 23 districts. The study also showed that the mammal had disappeared from three districts where they were previously found—Kaski, Manang and Gorkha. The local extinction of the red panda in Manang has been attributed to the loss of their diet—bamboo shoots.
Besides natural hazards, anthropogenic influences also affect the red panda population, since nearly 70 percent of their habitat in Nepal lies outside protected areas. Habitat degradation and poaching for their hide are the most significant anthropogenic challenges to the conservation of the red panda. Habitat loss results from a wide range of human activities, including fodder and fuelwood collection and developmental activities. Fuelwood and fodder are widely collected from forests which serve as red panda habitats. During our field visit to Manang in 2015 and 2017, we witnessed an abundant collection of bamboo as fodder for livestock. Similar trends have been reported from eastern Nepal.
A study done by Dipa Rai, a student of Tri-Chandra College, in Ilam—where conservation intervention is supposed to be more effective compared to western Nepal—revealed that the malingo species of bamboo, which is considered to be the primary food of the red panda, was being collected from the mammal's prime habitats. Red panda habitats are being threatened even within protected areas due to the lack of proper integration of environmental concerns into development planning and implementation.
The recent incident of the appearance of the elusive red panda alongside a bulldozer at a road construction site in the Gaurishankar Conservation Area exemplifies the threat caused to the red panda due to infrastructural expansion. The impact of these roads is not limited to the shrinkage of habitats. They will have a significant negative impact on the ecology of the red panda. As these mammals are shy creatures, highways passing through their prime habitats will have a negative effect on their mating and reproduction activities. Besides, instances of poaching of these endangered mammals are expected to rise significantly as we lack an effective surveillance mechanism in most of the Himalayan protected areas.
Poaching is reported to be on the rise recently. According to the Central Investigation Bureau of the Nepal Police, 102 red panda hides were confiscated between 2008 and 2019 from different parts of the country, and 172 people were arrested for their involvement in the illegal fur trade. Besides habitat degradation and poaching, exchange of parasites could be a significant threat to the species.
Addressing these challenges is crucial to ensure the survival of these mammals. Different stakeholders have realised this need already, and some programmes and actions are in place at the ground level. Some of these interventions were initiated recently, while others have started to pay off already. Community-based conservation is practised in the hilly districts of eastern Nepal, and eco-tours are regularly organised in these areas by the Red Panda Network to provide alternative livelihood options. Moreover, a school-level curriculum covering environmental conservation which primarily focuses on the red panda has been included in Ilam, Taplejung and Panchthar districts of eastern Nepal. A Red Panda Breeding Centre has also been set up by Sandakpur Rural Municipality of Ilam district.
Due to these conservation actions, the red panda population is reported to have risen in some parts of the country including Jumla district of Karnali and the Gaurishankar Conservation Area. But these findings should be accepted with caution, as a baseline population status of red pandas is not available for many parts of the country. The claims of an increase in population were based on a reported increase in red panda sightings. Besides, some conservation intervention measures are expected to be initiated soon.
These location-specific interventions are helpful, but not adequate to address the threats to the red panda. This is because a majority of these interventions are top-down and are primarily initiated by external prodding. Effective biodiversity conservation is possible only by following a bottom-up approach and ensuring a participatory decision-making process. Linking local livelihoods to the conservation of red pandas, either through eco-tourism or other methods, is also of utmost importance.
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