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The Red Panda.

Byline: Faizan Usmani

The red panda, or Ailurus Fulgens, is a mammal found in the eastern Himalayan region, covering Central Nepal, east of Myanmar, Tibet, Bhutan, North Bengal, North-East India and South-Western China. It is also known as the red bear-cat, fire-fox and fire-coloured cat, because of its reddish-brown fur.

Being quite small in size compared to the giant panda, the red panda is also referred to as the lesser panda. It is a bit larger in size compared to a domestic cat, has shorter front legs and a considerably long tail. Despite lots of dissimilar biological characteristics, the tiny mammal entirely relies on a diet of bamboo similar to that of a giant panda, to meet its nutritional and dietary needs.

"Although the red panda is classified as a carnivore, it has adapted to an almost completely herbivorous diet. In order to survive, the red panda relies on young tender bamboo shoots and leaves; a viable red panda population, therefore, is an indicator of a healthy forest," says Kamal Thapa, senior research officer, WWF Nepal.

Another factor the red panda shares with the giant ones is the natural habitat as both are native to the high bamboo forests of Asia, according to the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.

It is also believed that the red panda is the real panda, says Darren Danish, a UK-based vertebrate palaeontologist and science writer. He believes the giant panda was made known to science nearly a half century later than was the Red panda, and that's why it is called the giant panda.

There is always the old question: "What came first, the chicken or the egg?" The matter of concern lies in the fact that the red panda is on the verge of extinction and is listed by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as one of the rare and endangered species on earth.

As per the latest statistics, the red panda population has dropped to 10,000 only owing to an ever-increasing rate of deforestation throughout the South and Southeast Asian region. In addition, over 70 red panda hides have been seized from poachers and smugglers in Nepal in the last four years.

According to the South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN), an intergovernmental wildlife law enforcement support body of South Asian countries, the Red panda, called 'habre' in Nepali, is as an endangered animal in Nepal and trade and smuggling of its hides and body parts is illegal. In Nepal, this is also a crime in accordance with provisions set forth by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

"The act has a clear provision of complete protection of protected wildlife, including red panda under its Section 10. As per section 26 (2) of the Act, any person who kills or tries to kill red panda may be fined up to Rs 40,000-75,000 or jailed for 1-10 years, or both," according to SAWEN.

As per the statistics shared by SAWEN, the Metropolitan Police Office Crime Division of Nepal and the District Forest Office of Kathmandu arrested as many as 180 poachers and wildlife criminals and seized a massive quantity of red panda skins in the last four years. Police officials believe the poaching of the red panda has been increased in the valley and the possession, sale and smuggling of their skins is continually on the rise.

According to police sources as quoted by the Himalayan Times, a Nepalese daily, more than 40 red panda hides were confiscated from 2014 to 2016. Usually, red panda hides and body parts are smuggled to Myanmar and China and sold for USD 3000 to USD 9,000 on an average.

The rising incidences of illegal poaching and selling of red panda hides in the global black market are a testimony to the increasing threat to the endangered species, says the South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network (SAWEN).

As defined by the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1973, the District Forest Office (DFO) of Nepal happens to be the only authorised agency in the country to prosecute wildlife poachers and smugglers. Therefore, any suspect arrested in connection with wildlife crimes is handed over to the DFO for further investigation and probe.

According to Nepal's Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), Nepal is home to some 300 red pandas, wherein nearly two per cent of its total global population lives in the Kathmandu Valley alone.

According to the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, there may be <2,500 adult red pandas currently living in the wild. In Nepal, the wild animal lives at altitudes of between 2,200 and 4,800 meters and is found in Dolakha, Shankhuwasabha, Khotang, Taplejung, Ramechhap, Solukhumbhu, Panchthar, Ilam, Rasuwa and Sindhupalchowk districts, according to a survey carried out by the Red Panda Network, Nepal.

In Nepal, the Langtang National Park (LNP) has around 25 per cent of the country's total red panda population, while the animal's presence has been confirmed in eight Protected Areas, covering more than 37 per cent of the total potential red panda habitat in the country, says the WWF. However, cases of poaching and seizures of protected and vulnerable species are quite high in the country, compared to the rest of the world as the endangered animal is found in large numbers here.

Dr. Shant Raj Jnawali, who is a biodiversity coordinator for the Hariyo Ban Programme at WWF Nepal, says, "The IUCN lists the red panda as an endangered species on its Red List of Threatened Species; it is also one of the focal species of the Hariyo Ban Programme."

An initiative of the WWF Nepal, the Hariyo Ban Programme (HBP) is one of the efforts taken to protect the rare species. It supports the establishment of a community-based monitoring system and works to gradually enhance capacity building of the local communities to help them monitor and record red panda populations.

On a trial basis, the initiative was first taken in Ghyangphedi, Dhwache and Polangpati districts and is now being extended to more areas located near the red panda habitat, says Richa Bhattarai, who is a communications associate associated with the Hariyo Ban Programme (HBP).

"Local people have a considerable amount of conservation knowledge, but this needs to be tapped to complement existing scientific knowledge. Making use of local knowledge in this way will help communities to really get involved in conservation efforts," says Kamal Thapa, one of the trainers of the HBP, an initiative of the WWF Nepal.

The government of Nepal has formulated a long-term Red Panda Conservation Action Plan that aims to scientifically manage the natural habitat and update scientific information on red panda ecology and conservation in LNP. Overall, the plan endeavours to develop partnerships, promote awareness and formulate a legal framework and favourable policies for red panda conservation in the country.

Supported by the WWF, the Nepalese government's Red Panda Conservation Action Plan has endorsed the first requirement that is "to determine the population and habitat of the red pandas through extensive research," writes Richa Bhattarai, quoting Kamal Thapa. According to Bhattarai, the replication of such community-based initiatives in the remaining areas of the country is crucial for the conservation of red panda in the Himalayas.

"Once local people understand the need for conservation and acquire the skills needed to make it happen, conservation efforts for species such as the red panda become dramatically more effective," says Gautam Poudyal, who is associated with the WWF Nepal as a field project officer at the Langtang National Park (LNP) and Buffer Zone Support Project (BZSP).

In spite of the fact that various conservation programmes are in place in Nepal, there is a need to increase public awareness, regulate poaching activities and save bamboo forests from further destruction.

"Threats to the red panda and other such species can be only reduced if local communities are the owners and guardians of local conservation efforts," says Dr. Shant Raj Jnawali of WWF Nepal.
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Publication:South Asia
Geographic Code:9NEPA
Date:Apr 30, 2017
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