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Saving the "Other" Panda

Sep 18, 2012

Working Towards a Conservation Strategy for Red Pandas in China

Through dense branches white-tufted ears appear, then a tiny masked face with a button nose. After that, deep red fur, and finally, a bushy – and quite impressive – tail. Aside from its white mask and the name, panda, there are few similarities between red pandas and their black-and-white cousins.

Tara Stephens with the zoo’s Centre for Conservation Research was surprised to learn on her recent trip to China that these endangered animals tend to be lost not only in the shadowy forests of the ecosystems they call home, but also in the shadow of their iconic namesake, the giant panda.

A rodent enthusiast, Tara has spent her conservation research career immersing herself in the world of black-footed ferret and prairie dog conservation. Ask her about population models, habitat or status of either species and she can give you an expert answer, but red pandas? Tara admits she wasn’t exactly sure what she could contribute when the Calgary Zoo asked her to represent the organization at a workshop led by the IUCN’s Conservation Breeding Specialist Group in Beijing to create a conservation strategy for red pandas. 

In the company of 27 scientists, researchers, population management specialists and other experts on the red panda’s home turf, Tara quickly discovered that there was much to draw from the zoo’s conservation research expertise. "There is a lot we can share from our work in species recovery and reintroduction that can make a significant contribution to the long-term conservation plan for the red panda, both in China and throughout its range," says Tara.

Filling the Knowledge Gap

“Red pandas are well researched in terms of heir biology, but there are gaps in what we know about their distribution and abundance, particularly in China,” explains Tara. With an estimated wild population of less than 10,000 red pandas, everyone agrees that we need to take action to protect them. “It was great to be able to contribute and draw ideas from the threats I know exist for species the zoo is researching in North America, as well as our experience in community-based conservation at the Wechiau Community Hippo Sanctuary in Ghana, West Africa," says Tara.

Calling on Communities for Help

Taking a community-based approach really resonated with program participants. “Poverty is a serious issue and a driving factor of many threats we identified for red pandas, including habitat destruction and poaching,” Tara says, adding that one significant threat is bamboo shoot collection, which affects red pandas not only because it removes a food source, but also because it disturbs the forest.

Although there will be challenges ahead for red panda conservation, Tara says that she left the meeting feeling hopeful. 

“China’s population is very large and working with local people to find ways to create sustainable livelihoods that are healthier for the people, the red pandas and the ecosystem they share is the goal of community-based projects. In this case it could mean finding new ways to sustainably grow and harvest bamboo.”

A Hopeful Future for Wild Red Pandas

Although there will be challenges ahead for red panda conservation, Tara says that she left the meeting feeling hopeful. “There are a lot of very passionate people involved and, by the last day, many Chinese researchers, scientists and forestry practitioners were excited to participate in the next stages of the plan. They were also very appreciative of international support from organizations like the Calgary Zoo. We see a clear potential for collaborations between initiatives in Asia and the zoo to make a difference in red panda conservation.”

From the Fall 2012 issue of the Calgary Zoo’s Wild Life member magazine.