The Himalayan Times, one of Nepal’s leading daily newspapers, quotes RPN staff and partners in this in-depth feature article about the situation of red pandas in the country.
From the Feb. 8 2013 online edition:
Friday 08 Feb, 2013 08:28 PM Nepal Time
The Red Panda tale
KATHMANDU: Reddish brown and bushy-tailed, this mammal is the size of a small dog, and mostly eats bamboo. The Red Panda, known in Nepal as Habre, is found in just five countries — Nepal, India, Bhutan, Myanmar and China — in the wild. But there are lots of threats to this species in Nepal. Enlisted as ‘vulnerable’ on IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and categorised as protected species by the government of Nepal, the Red Panda is currently facing a number of challenges, say experts according to whom a timely initiative is required to ensure its safety.
Range and population
Red Panda has been listed as ‘vulnerable’ because “its population is estimated at less than 10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline of greater than 10 per cent over the next three generations (estimated at 30 years). The population decline in the last three generations (30 years) is estimated to be less than 30 per cent” — the red list mentions. While this is the global situation of Red Panda, “the estimation of potential habitat of Red Panda in Nepal after the study in Cholangpati, a small pocket of Langtang National Park in the early 90s, showed that there are 314 Red Pandas in Nepal,” informs Prof Karan Bahadur Shah, Professor of Zoology, Natural History Museum who is one of the persons involved in making the action plan for Red Panda in Nepal. The same study had estimated the potential Red Panda habitat in Nepal as 912 sq km.
After that there has not been any other study on its population, though Dr Maheshwor Dhakal, ecologist at Department of National Park and Wildlife Conservation expresses, “It is estimated there must be some 300 to 500 Red Pandas in Nepal though it is unofficial estimation.” And this species is spread from the eastern-most part of the nation to Mugu in the west, states Prof Shah. Though habitating in eight protected areas of the nation, Dr Dhakal reveals over 50 per cent of the Red Panda population is outside of the national park area.
Lack of study
Despite being on the list of protected species, there has not been proper study of this species be it from government or private sector.
“Because Red Panda is a shy animal, it is difficult to collect data on it,” says Rajiv Paudel, a representative from the Red Panda Network, an institution that has been working on Red Panda in Panchthar, Illam and Taplejung (PIT) districts of eastern Nepal. It is estimated 25 per cent of Red Panda of Nepal are found in the PIT area.
There have been studies on small scales by students for their thesis. “Such studies are done in small areas on a small scale by students for their thesis, but there has not been a study at the national level after Dr Pralhad Yonzon,” says Dr Dhakal. While many point out that because this animal is small and often hides, it is difficult to study the Red Panda, Prof Shah argues, “It is a secretive animal where studies by students is difficult as they have their own limitations of budget and knowledge base, there is need to study this animal at the national level using good methodology.”
Destruction of habitat due to human activities and forest fires along with fragmentation of habitat are some of the threats to this animal, as per Dr Dhakal. Prof Shah adds, “In a patch, there are no more than 10 to 20 Red Pandas in the case of Nepal. And there is no corridor to link one patch with another. If a panda in a patch suffers from any communicable disease, the entire population there dies as there is no other place to escape to from there in the absence of linking corridor. ”Linking this instance with ecologically viable population, he further expresses, “Ecologically, the population of any animal should not be less than 200 in one area in order to be a viable population. If it is less, then it is vulnerable.” And one place in China has Red Panda population of over 200, as per Prof Shah who says, “Even in PIT area, they are not more than 100 in an area.”
Among the different agencies, the Wildlife Conservation Nepal (WCN) is one that has been working against illegal trade of wildlife. Nabin Gopal Baidya, Programme Officer at WCN shares, “When WCN’s field operatives got the information about the Red Panda skin on the month of August, 2008 it was shocking news to everyone as it was never heard of before. But today it is traded in many parts of the country in the illegal market.” As per data provided by WCN, Nepal Police and WCN seized two Red Panda skins in 2008 and three such skins in 2010. “Such seizures indicate a rise in the demand of Red Panda skin in the illegal market resulting in higher poaching and trading,” he explains. “The skin of Red Panda is used to make hats and other items. It is also said Red Panda meat is served in a restaurant in Hong Kong,” informs Prof Shah adding, “Every year four to five Red Panda skins come to our museum for testing. This year we received around 10 skins.”
In the wild, the survival rate of the Red Panda cub is as low as 50 per cent, says Prof Shah “because Red Panda cubs are very small and hardly 115 grams when they are born”.
Compared to other places, the situation of Red Panda is quite good in the PIT area, as per Prof Shah, but still there are some threats, argues Paudel. He states, “Besides natural death, the Red Panda here are often killed by Mt Hawk Eagle and hunter dogs. But no illegal hunting has been reported as yet in this area [since RPN started conservation awareness programs (ed. RPN)].”
What should be done?
Sharing about their own instance where the Red Panda Network is working with the local community for protection of Red Panda, Paudel mentions, “From among the community people of PIT area, we have appointed forest guardians, who monitor and collect data of their respective areas. And unless local people are aware, conservation effort cannot be effective.”
Meanwhile, Prof Shah recommends, “Along with creating connectivity of corridors, there is need of translocation and relocation of the animal in the places required.” He also suggests captive breeding of the Red Panda, further advising, “Strict enforcement of law on anti-poaching along with international cooperation is also must.”