Photo credit  Nima Sherpa; a Red Panda forest guardian from Eastern Nepal
Photo credit Nima Sherpa; a Red Panda forest guardian from Eastern Nepal


Nigalya Ponyo, Habre or Red Panda: The Himalayan forest's most underrated animal faces survival threat

It’s elusive. It’s mysterious. It's solitary. And it faces survival threats. Know more about this remarkable species.

By the_farsight |

Recognized for its biodiversity hotspot, and with 752 one-horned rhinos and 335 wild tigers, Nepal has established a global identity through wildlife conservation. But while rhinos and tigers get the limelight, other endangered creatures are often overlooked. Namely, the red panda. 

How familiar are we with this remarkable species?

The adorable and shy bamboo munching species, are also commonly known as ‘habre’ and ‘Punde Kundo’ in local language in the mountains. 

The word panda however is derived from a Nepali dialect word nigalya ponya: nigalya believed to have originated from ‘nigalo’ meaning bamboo, while ‘ponya’ assumed to have come from ‘ponja’ meaning the ball of the foot or claws — fully meant as ‘bamboo foot’.

In English, Red Panda are also commonly known as the lesser panda, the Red bearcat, shining cat, and Firefox.

While our imagination is often caught by the giant black-and-white panda, epitomised today by the film ‘Kung Fu Panda’, the red panda is not even closely related with the giant panda, which belongs to the bear species yet believed to be the first true panda. However, the red panda (Ailurus fulgens) was catalogued in 1825 by French zoologist Frédéric Cuvier — 48 years before the giant panda was.

All that aside, these cute creatures are facing survival threats as a result of intensified anthropogenic activities, such as livestock grazing, illegal trade, poaching and habitat loss and degradation and natural causes, despite being a protected species.

Red Panda is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and included in Appendix I of CITES and categorised as a protected mammal by the National Park and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1973 of Nepal. 

In 2020, scientists from China discovered that there are two distinct species of red pandas, the Himalayan Red Panda and the Chinese Red Panda. As you can guess, the subspecies native to the Himalayas is the Ailurus fulgens or, the Himalayan Red Panda which are native to a handful of countries in the wild – Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar and Nepal.

A white mark on its face and a slightly white tail distinguishes the Himalayan Red Panda from the Chinese Red Panda which are more redder. The size of a small housecat, this tree-dwelling mammal thrives in the understory (a layer of vegetation beneath the main canopy of a forest) of temperate, bamboo filled himalayan forests. Red panda’s prefer to live in forests around mature trees and in close proximity (about 100-200m) to water resources.

With their two layers of fur—a soft undercoat covered with coarse hairs insulates them from the mountain chill of their habitat, while they use their long tail as a wraparound blanket.

Good at camouflaging makes it difficult to spot Red Pandas. Oftentimes, since moss resembles the colour of the coat of red pandas, we think there is a red panda far in the distance but as we get closer, we will be disappointed that the reddish blob is just a clump of moss in the tree, says Sonam Tashi Lama, the project coordinator for the Red Panda Network.

Bamboo leaves and shoots constitute more than two-third of the red panda's diet while they also feed on berries, mushrooms, lichens, grasses, and small insects. Due to their low-calorie diets, they spend most of the day sleeping on tree branches and are crepuscular — mostly active at dawn or dusk.

Photo by Red Panda Network (RPN)

The weight of the Red Panda varies between 8-17 pounds, live for an average of 8 to 10 years, mature sexually at 18-20 months and breed in the late winter months (Jan to Mar) while the cubs are born during the monsoon (Jun to Aug). High death rates, and naturally low birth rates of just a single or twin birth a year are other major reasons behind their dwindling populations. 

In Nepal, their habitats are in the temperate and sub-alpine forests with the elevations ranging from 2,200 to 4,800 meters. The National Red Panda Survey 2016 documented that 70% of potential habitat lies outside protected areas, which is seen as another challenge in their conservation.

An accurate information on status, population, and distribution on red panda is still lacking and remains difficult to determine due to the geographical remoteness and fragmented population. 

It is estimated Nepal has red pandas between 237 to 1,061 spread across 36 mountain districts — segregated into 11 sub-population zones namely, Kanchenjunga, Sankhuwasabha East, Sankhuwasabha West, Sagarmatha, Gaurishankar, Langtang, Manaslu, Annapurna, Dhorpatan, Rara, Khaptad and Darchula. The central zoo of Nepal has two of them.

Globally, less than 10,000 Red Pandas are left in the world, says WWF. Reportedly, other estimates suggest only 2,500 remain in their native habitat.

The IUCN Red List has marked them endangered for their decreasing population trend. It is suggested that the population over the past 20 years has seen 40% decline — threatened by climate change, deforestation, habitat degradation, overgrazing, poaching for fur, meat, and other body parts and illegal trade.

“Habitat loss is the biggest threat to red pandas in Nepal where their habitat is fragmented into 400 small forest patches that are mostly unprotected as Community Forests or private land. Forests are fragmented as they are converted to farmland and settlement and degraded by unsustainable livestock grazing and resource harvest by local communities,” says Red Panda Network (RPN), a pioneer Nepali organisation in the conservation of the endangered red panda.

“Although habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation pose the greatest risk of extinction to the remaining wild red panda population, these issues are heavily compounded by wider concerns of climate change, overpopulation in the Himalayan range leading to more deforestation for resources and infrastructure, lack of legislative enforcement, invasive species, and the illegal wildlife trade,” explains Clara Steel Miguelez, an aspiring wildlife conservationist in her work for the Earth magazine.

Whereas remote geographical habitat with inaccessible terrain access to their location is one of the major challenges in their conservation efforts.

Successful conservation efforts
Red Panda Network (RPN) is a leading community-engaging panda conservation initiative. The network links red panda conservation to integrated solutions like livelihood and alternative income through ecotourism, organic farming, micro-enterprises, anti-poaching networks, and forest guardian programs. 

Forest guardians are local people appointed and funded by RPN to monitor and protect the rare species. They are trained as red panda trackers to promote ecotourism, ensure protection and minimise illegal hunting and trade. 

The network also runs the ‘Plant a Red Panda Home’ campaign which has successfully planted 336,380 trees in eastern Nepal’s red panda habitat, restoring hundreds of acres of red panda habitat by connecting fragmented forest with a protected biological corridor.

A 2021 study by the RPN found an anecdotal evidence of growing red panda population in the Panchthar-Ilam-Taplejung (PIT) corridor of eastern Nepal based on red panda sighting during RPN ecotrips — an ecotourism based travel package that RPN manages for visitors. Similarly, Sonam Tashi Lama, RPN’s program coordinator, was awarded the prestigious Whitley Award 2022 for his inspiring leadership in the red panda’s conservation efforts in 2022.

Photo by Pankaj Khatiwada

Besides RPN, Mountain Organization Nepal (MON), World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Nepal, and other local organisations are also working on communities’ conservation awareness. School-level teaching programs are designed to impart knowledge on ecological values of red panda to minimise the threats in various parts of Eastern Nepal. 

On the other hand, the NPWC Act provisions a fine between Rs 500,000 to 1,000,000 or imprisonment of 5 to 15 years or both for the offenders and illegal trade of red panda and its body parts while the informants get a reward of Rs 25,000 for aiding in criminal arrest and seizure of body parts. 

Opportunities - ecotourism and ecological balance
For its extreme attractiveness to observe in the wild, this charismatic species presents great opportunities for ecotourism and income for the local communities. By developing ecotourism packages surrounding the charm and conservation of Red Pandas, visitors can be lured for a rich travel experience including wildlife photography — which will enable locals to get to work as nature guides and Red Panda trackers while communities can be integrated with conservation practices and homestay programs. But much remains to be done in promotion and conservation.

Besides tourism opportunities, the existence of Red Panda entails great ecological importance — which is considered an indicator species for the health of the eastern Himalayan Broadleaf and Conifer forest. Indicator species means the proxy use of population density, presence/absence, reproduction success and migration of the species as an index of the biological quality of a particular ecosystem.


*This work is partly contributed by Pratik Bhattarai, a Red Panda enthusiast.

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