Red pandas facing a fractured future

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The much-loved red panda is renowned for its tree-climbing ability and lovable nature, but new research shows the endangered mammal is nearing extinction.

University of Queensland PhD candidate Damber Bista, who tracked red pandas in Nepal over a 12-month period from Queensland using GPS telemetry, found that human impact forces the mammal to restrict its movements, further fragmenting its habitat.

Mr. Bista said it was a worrying sign.

“Our research findings show that current patterns of habitat fragmentation and logging, resulting from infrastructure projects such as new roads, place the red panda under increased threat,” Bista said.

“For this reason, red pandas modify their activity to minimize their interactions with disturbances, such as humans, dogs or livestock, and this significantly interferes with natural animal interactions, resulting in population isolation.”

Mr Bista has been studying red pandas for several years and in late 2019 he traveled to Nepal, where he tagged red pandas with collars that allow him to track their movements via satellite.

He returned to Australia in January 2020, intending to return to Nepal in a few months to continue monitoring animals and installing cameras in the field, but COVID-19 hit.

“Satellite tracking allowed me to monitor the red pandas remotely here in Brisbane, while I relied on my friends and colleagues in Nepal to install cameras and conduct the field surveys,” he said. .

“It was a surreal experience, I was spending many hours a day during the COVID shutdowns at home, watching the movement of red pandas in Nepal on my computer.”

There was a red panda that he was watching closely.

An adult male ‘Chintapu’, named after where it was found, was known for its itinerant nature and in a 24-hour period the mammal traveled 5 km, which is unheard of for a typical red panda .

So what was next – fresh bamboo, or maybe a wildflower delicacy? “It was during the breeding season,” Mr. Bista explained.

Other red pandas Mr Bista has closely tracked for 12 months include a female ‘Paaruhaang’, named after a local deity, a female ‘Mechaachaa’ meaning girl and ‘Ninaammaa’ ​​meaning sky queen in dialect. local.

There was also “Brian”, named after the founder of the Red Panda Network.

Bista’s research was the fifth known global study conducted on wild red pandas, and only the second in Nepal.

“It’s hard to know how many red pandas are left in the world, but it’s estimated that there are 10,000 left in the wild and between 500 and 1,000 in Nepal,” he said.

“With the results of this study showing the fragmentation of their habitat, as well as a previous study on the impacts of poaching, I am concerned about the future of this species.

“While red pandas may adapt to some extent to habitat impacts, they may be susceptible to local extinction under these conditions, endangering the wider population of the species.”

Bista said the shrinking amount of wild forest is forcing the red panda into situations where it must decide whether to live closer to predators or adapt to coexist with humans.

“As you’d expect, it’s in an animal’s best interest to avoid its predators, but as we continue to build more roads and infrastructure, it drastically reduces the ability of red pandas to do so. “, did he declare.

“As the availability of suitable forests dwindles, it’s up to the red panda to weigh its options on how best to survive.

“This trade-off may lead to an increased risk of long-term mortality and population decline.”

He said this underpins the need to minimize human-induced disruption, which is one of the recommendations made in the study.

“Our recommendation is that human activities be strictly regulated during most if not all biologically crucial periods such as mating, dispersal and calving seasons,” Bista said.

“With regard to conservation programs, we recommend that they focus on identifying ecologically sensitive areas, maintaining habitat continuity, and minimizing projects that will disturb habitats, such as the construction of roads and cattle ranching.

“If road construction cannot be avoided, we suggest avoiding central areas and restrictions on speed limits and noise, and increasing wildlife crossings in high-risk areas.”

The research is published in Landscape ecology.

This research was a collaborative effort between the University of Queensland, University of Southern Queensland, the Red Panda Network and Rotterdam Zoo.

Red panda video: https://youtu.be/OrO-aVYRZ3Q

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