The fire fox of the mountains: Remembering the forgotten panda

Published on Sep 17, 2022 12:41 PM IST

With low sightings of this elusive animal that is tucked away in the mountains of the Himalayan range, regular monitoring of red panda habitats, a deeper insight into threats, and support from the community are urgent.

Red Panda. (WWF India) PREMIUM
Red Panda. (WWF India)

As the mist dissipates, the tree tops in the distance come slowly into view. The thick foliage of the old oak forests of the Pangolakha Wildlife Sanctuary glistens like treasures in the morning sun. This sanctuary situated towards the eastern part of Sikkim is contiguous with the Neora Valley National Park in West Bengal, and Bhutan’s Jigme Khesar Nature Reserve, making it a highly significant trijunction. The parting of the mist is like a curtain being drawn to reveal secrets that the mountains have held for ages. It is for a reason these mighty mountains have been hailed as the land of treasures. But in these high mountains, the rain-laden clouds come down quick, and in an instant, everything gets shrouded again in a thick air of mystery.

Among these clouds up high, in the shadow of the Himalayan range, the red pandas have roamed for many years; one of the precious treasures guarded by the mountains they call their home. These temperate forests of oaks and conifers have provided them shelter, and the understory of bamboo species, their food. Until recently, the harsh unwelcoming geography of the region ensured an undisturbed refuge these animals needed to survive. At these altitudes, human habitations too were scarce, and, therefore, the number of encounters with these creatures, minimal.

The animal itself is one of the most elusive. They spend most of their time up on tall oak branches, their fur well camouflaged with the colour of mosses, the lightest of noise making them alert and scampering for deeper cover. Red pandas have evolved to be masters of stealth, keeping themselves undetected to human eyes. Even researchers who consciously set out in search of red pandas scour forests for months on end, with the hopes of having a glimpse of the blazing fur, only to return dejected. So, for those lucky few, who can spot the red panda in the wild, it is nothing short of a blessing. Pangolakha Wildlife Sanctuary is among the few remaining areas in Sikkim, where a sighting might still be possible for those willing to spend time and effort.

Community interactions with red pandas also have been pretty rare, mainly limited to herder communities that spend considerable time in the high altitudes. It is perhaps due to this that red panda references in folk songs and stories are next to non-existent. Where pheasants who share the same habitat – the Himalayan Monal and Satyr Tragopan (Danphey and Munal in Nepali) are celebrated and included in folk songs and stories, there is a conspicuous absence of red pandas in our local cultures. This absence is also described in a recent paper in which, save for a reference to a ritual of the Limboo community in Nepal, the paper says that the cultural significance of red pandas is limited.

WWF India’s surveys conducted in 2018-19 around red panda habitats in Sikkim, where red panda is the state animal, have also reported low sightings of the animal. Questions on the sighting of the animal in key villages across the state have very few people responding in the affirmative. Those who have seen red pandas are also of the older age group, and most of their sightings were not from recent times. For the younger generation, who have a waning association with the forests, the animal seems to be a complete mystery. They know about its existence, but have very little knowledge about it.

An earlier WWF India study of 2011 in the Fambonglho Wildlife Sanctuary, which is close to Sikkim’s capital Gangtok, also yielded no evidence of the red panda. This sanctuary, situated right on top of the hillside, was known to have red pandas in the past. Now fringed on all sides by villages that are ever-expanding and slowly inching up towards the sanctuary, Fambonglho is fast losing its connectivity to other forests that climb up to higher elevations. Whether this fragmentation of the sanctuary seals the fate of red pandas in this part of the state, as connectivity to the higher ridges is completely lost, is to be seen and closely monitored.

Red panda. (WWF India)
Red panda. (WWF India)

What is, however, a certainty is that across their range, habitats for red pandas are shrinking, and the animals are getting cornered into smaller pockets. The forbidding terrain stands breached with an ever-increasing need for space and resources, and a rapid pace of associated infrastructure and development projects. Roads crisscross every mountainside, some cutting through pristine red panda habitats. The sound of the stone crusher sometimes penetrates even the most remote of forests. Tourist trails lead deeper into areas that were perhaps frequented only by locals on rare seasonal occasions. What would this opening up and human infringement mean for an animal that is by design so shy and elusive and stressed by the slightest of disturbances? What would it mean for red panda breeding when they are squeezed into such tiny spaces? Are sightings and therefore red pandas becoming even rarer?

In 2008, red pandas were moved from vulnerable to endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to their rapidly declining population and habitats. Their status has not changed since then. WWF-India’s study in Sikkim shows that 1201 sq km or roughly 17% of the state’s area is potential red panda habitat. More than 60% of this fall outside of protected areas. Intensive studies are needed to understand whether these areas hold red panda populations or not.

For such an important species as the red panda, maintaining a record of sightings from community members, tourists, and drivers who pass through red panda habitats is a must. Community-based reports of these sightings could be made systematic, which can be further collated at the state level that could provide valuable information over time.

Regular monitoring of red panda habitats would be key to understanding whether they are occupying areas where they were previously found. A deeper insight into threats, and how and whether red pandas adapt to these also need to be evaluated. Support from community members for these monitoring exercises would be valuable not only in terms of understanding the status but also to build interest and awareness for them to champion the cause of red panda conservation. Tourism, an important avenue for income generation for local communities should go hand in hand, so that communities benefit from the conservation of the species.

It goes without saying that transboundary cooperation for red panda conservation is critical. For a state like Sikkim, flanked on both sides by countries with whom large parts of the red panda habitats are shared, transboundary cooperation for monitoring and research has to be a top priority.

Tucked away in the high mountains of the Himalayan range, the red panda is one of the most special animals that can be found in this region. Discovered more than 40 years before the giant panda, it is the original panda, but sadly, it is also the forgotten panda. The fire fox of the mountains deserves to be remembered.

Priyadarshinee Shrestha works with WWF-India in the Sikkim-Darjeeling belt as team leader, WWF India, Khangchendzonga Landscape

The views expressed are personal

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