The Zoological Gardens of Berlin are protecting red pandas in the forests of the Himalayas.
Project name: Red Panda (WWF)
Species: Red panda (Ailurus fulgens)
IUCN threatened status: Endangered (EN)
Project location: The Eastern Himalayas
Greatest threat: Habitat loss; hunting for fur
Response: Protecting the forests by demonstrating alternative uses of resources; educating the local population about nature and species conservation
Red pandas in Berlin
The red panda is the sole living representative of the mammal family Ailuridae and actually only a distant relative of its namesake, the giant panda. However, both species do share the same favourite food: bamboo. Partly due to the red panda’s contested classification, the animal has a variety of nicknames – it is also known as the lesser panda, the firefox, and the red cat-bear. Described by the French zoologist who discovered them as the most beautiful animals he had ever seen, red pandas first came to Zoo Berlin in 1933. Tierpark Berlin got its first three red pandas in 1961. They were introduced to the public at the start of the new season as the animal park’s star attraction. The red panda remains one of the most popular animals among zoo visitors, which is why it is frequently used as the poster child in zoo advertising – not only in Berlin. In 1980 the red panda adorned a series of stamps marking the Tierpark’s 25-year anniversary; it featured on posters advertising Tierpark Berlin in 1964 and 2002; and it has repeatedly been used on Tierpark signs.
Living on top of the world
The two subspecies of red panda are found in the Himalayan region. Their preferred habitat is high up in the humid mountain valleys – 1,500 to 4,000 metres above sea level – where there is thick vegetation and plenty of bamboo. This habitat stretches from northern India into the mountainous regions of Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and China. The western red panda (A. f. fulgens) inhabits the Eastern Himalayas, a region that encompasses the Chinese provinces of Xizang and northwestern Yunnan, northeastern India, and northern Myanmar. Eastern red pandas (A. f. styani) live in the Chinese provinces of Sichuan and northern Yunnan. Here, they share a habitat with their distant relative, the giant panda. The IUCN classifies red pandas as “Endangered”, as there are fewer than 10,000 of these animals left in the wild – an estimated half of them in India.
Destruction of protective forests
Currently, the main threat to the survival of the red panda is the deforestation of its Himalayan habitat, both to obtain firewood and building materials and to turn the woodland into arable land. In the Indian state of Sikkim, where the red panda is the official state animal, the human population has more than doubled over the last 30 years. Road building has also increasingly fragmented the animals’ remaining habitat. This disrupts natural genetic exchange between populations, resulting in an increased risk of inbreeding and genetic diseases, as well as lower reproduction rates because of the physical isolation of solitary individuals.
Hunted by humans and animals
Red pandas are also under threat from poaching. Despite bans, they are still hunted for their fur, which is used to produce hats or paint brushes. In addition, they risk falling prey to stray dogs if they leave the safety of the trees. Zoo and Tierpark Berlin support the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Red Panda project, in cooperation with the German Federation of Zoo Directors (VDZ). Since 1999, the WWF has been working to safeguard the Eastern Himalayan red panda populations in Nepal, Bhutan and India. In 2005, it expanded the scope of its project to include the Indian state of Sikkim.
To combat the decline in red panda numbers through loss of habitat, project workers are developing alternative sources of income for local people in an attempt to ease the strain on the remaining woodland. Another important task is to reconnect the remaining habitats by restoring lost forest. Creating small biogas plants, for example, ensures that fewer trees need to be cut down for fuel. Biogas comes largely from cow excrement and serves as a readily available alternative fuel source. With a view to stemming illegal hunting for fur, the project also educates local people about conservation efforts, encouraging them to become red panda supporters themselves.