Red Panda

September 20 is International Red Panda Day. To celebrate, we spoke to Nicki Boyd, behavior husbandry manager at the San Diego Zoo and chair of the board of Red Panda Network, about how cool these animals are and how the organization works to conserve them.
Here are five facts we bet you didn’t know about these fascinating creatures.

1. Red Pandas Were the First Pandas

When you hear "panda," everyone tends to think of that big black and white bear, but the red panda had the name first. "They were discovered first, about 50 years before the giant panda," Boyd says.

Panda is probably derived from a Nepalese word meaning "eater of bamboo," but because red pandas range over many countries in Asia, they also have many local names. One nickname may be familiar if you use a certain Web browser: That little animal in the logo for Firefox is a red panda. "It’s one native name for them, because of the coloration and the big bushy tail," Boyd says. Another name is "wah," in imitation of one of the sounds they make.

2. Red Pandas Are Bamboo-eating Carnivores

Although they share a name, red pandas and giant pandas are not closely related. The classifications of both species have changed as scientists have studied them, but now giant pandas are placed in the bear family and red pandas are in their own family, which is more closely related to raccoons, coatis and kinkajous.

But the two pandas have some interesting similarities because they’ve evolved to suit the same lifestyle — what naturalists call convergent evolution. Both are classified as carnivores, so their closest relatives are meat eaters, yet both live mainly on bamboo. "Both have a false thumb that allows them to grip and hold the bamboo," Boyd says. It’s called a false thumb because it evolved from a bone in the wrist; it’s not the same structure as the thumb on creatures who have five digits. (Both pandas have five fingers, plus that extra bone.)

3. Red Pandas Have Fascinating Feet and Awesome Voices

The climate red pandas live in is cold, so even the bottoms of their feet are covered with the thick fur that insulates their bodies. They also spend a lot of time in trees, so they’ve got special adaptations for climbing. "They have semi-retractable claws that are super-sharp — they’re almost catlike in the way that their claws work," Boyd says. "And when they want to climb down, they can rotate their rear feet to grip the tree as they head straight down."

They also have a variety of interesting vocalizations. "They have a chittering that sounds like a bird chirping. And if they’re cornered, they let out the loudest sound, called a huff-quack — it sounds like a big bear is in the room. It scares the daylights out of you," she says, "and then you think, Whoa, that came out of that little animal there?"

4. Saving Red Pandas Means Saving Others — Including Ourselves

Red pandas are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List of Threatened Species, although they’re not very well studied because their range is so wide and they are not easy to find in the wild. But what is known for sure is that their habitat is important to many creatures.

"If we can save the habitat for the red panda, not only are we saving other species — hundreds of bird species, clouded leopards, hoofstock — but also, the Himalayas [where the red panda lives] provide one-fifth of the world’s population with clean air and clean water," Boyd says. "Part of the goal of Red Panda Network is to save this amazing ecological system."

5. Helping People Equals Helping Red Pandas

Red pandas need habitat, but so do people. Red Panda Network helps pandas by helping the humans who live with them.

"The most successful conservation projects are ones where the community has buy-in," she says. "We as Americans can’t go into Nepal and say, ‘Stop cutting your forest down because we love this animal.’ You have to figure out what motivates the community and how to support them."

Red Panda Network helps by providing more efficient stoves and fuel so fewer trees can be cut down, fencing to keep cattle out of the forest and greenhouses where families can grow medicinal plants for income instead of taking them from the wild. Ecotourism also brings money into communities, and Red Panda Network hires and trains locals to monitor the forest; these locals provide data and help tourists spot this elusive animal in the wild.

"We support the community that lives in red panda habitat to be sustainable and protect the habitat," Boyd says. "It’s a win-win for both."

Find out more about the red panda and where you can see one at a zoo near you at Red Panda Network.