A safe haven at Fota and Dublin’s Himalayan Hills but red pandas are under pressure in the wild

Climbing mammals tend to be small, but there are exceptions.

An orang-utan, ‘the old man of the woods’, might tip the scales at 140kg — twice the weight of a person — yet it spends 90% of its 50-year-long life high in the canopy.

Goats are sure-footed alpinists. Feeding 8m to 10m up Morocco’s thorny Argania trees, they present an extraordinary spectacle. The trees benefit; their seeds are dispersed in the goats’ dung.

‘Tashi’ the 10-year-old snow leopard at Himalayan Hills, the red panda and snow leopard habitat at Dublin Zoo. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

Dublin Zoo has opened a new facility for two accomplished climbers. The Himalayan Hillstarget=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”> exhibit, recreating the atmosphere of a Nepalese mountain village, is now home to snow leopards. It also supports cuddly red pandas, which breed also in Fota Wildlife Parktarget=”_blank” rel=”noopener noreferrer”>. Making special provision for this species is timely; research results, just published, show that the panda, classified as ‘Endangered’ by the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature], faces new challenges in the forests of Nepal.

The name ‘panda’ referred originally to the red species. Only later was it applied to the familiar giant of ‘panda diplomacy’ and symbol of the World Wildlife Fund. Despite appearances, the two types of panda are not closely related. After decades of heated debate, scientists agree that the giant panda, despite being a bamboo-eating vegetarian, is a bear which diverged from its carnivorous cousins around 19 million years ago. DNA analysis suggests that the red panda may be more closely related to mustelids, such as weasels and skunks. Its provenance is complex and the taxonomic jury may still be out.

Spot the snow leopard! At Dublin Zoo's Himalayan Hills. Picture: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie
Spot the snow leopard! At Dublin Zoo’s Himalayan Hills. Picture: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

Damber Bista, of Queensland University, fitted satellite-tracking collars to red pandas in Nepal. These enabled him to keep track of the animals without leaving his home in Australia during COVID lockdowns. Bista spent hours each day logging panda movements on his computer. Some individuals were special; Chintapu, an adult male, travelled 5km in a 24-hour period — an extraordinary feat for a panda.

It’s estimated that only about 10,000 red pandas remain in the wild, between 500 and 1,000 of them in Nepal. The forests they inhabit are being steadily reduced in size, cleared for dwellings and agriculture.

New roads are being cut through prime panda habitat; noise and disturbance by people dogs and livestock take a toll. These vulnerable animals are being forced into ever-closer contact with poachers and predators. Six cat species, and three other nocturnal enemies, were recorded in Bista’s study area. Roads, but not dirt tracks, increasingly restrict panda movements. Hemmed-in, local populations risk becoming inbred.

The study’s findings suggest that, while red pandas can adapt to changes in their environment to some extent, they are no longer able to do so adequately. A University of Queensland news release states: “Red pandas are changing their activity to minimise their interaction with disturbances, such as humans dogs or livestock, and this is interfering with natural interactions between animals, resulting in population isolation.”

Bista and his colleagues recommend that road construction be avoided ‘in most if not all ecologically critical sites’ and that ‘restrictions on vehicle speeds should be maintained’.

Will red pandas survive only in zoos ultimately?

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