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Red pandas face shrinking habitats and tough decisions

New research shows that the red panda, despite having fans everywhere, is being pushed closer to the precipice of extinction. When PhD researcher Damber Bista of the University of Queensland tracked red pandas using GPS collars, he discovered that their habitat is being fragmented.

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

“Because of this, red pandas are changing their activity to minimize their interactions with disturbances, such as humans, dogs, or livestock, and this is drastically interfering with natural interactions between the animals, resulting in population isolation.”

Bista traveled to Nepal to tag and collar pandas, which allowed him to track the animals remotely from Queensland on his computer. COVID restrictions made it impossible for him to return to Nepal, as was the original plan. 

“The 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,” said Bista. “It was a surreal experience, I would spend many hours a day during COVID lockdowns in my home, watching the movement of red pandas in Nepal on my computer.”

This study is only the fifth of its kind to be conducted on wild red pandas, and the second carried out in Nepal. 

“It’s difficult to know how many red pandas are left in the world, but it is estimated that 10,000 are left in the wild, and between 500 to 1000 are in Nepal,” said Bista.“With the findings from this study showing fragmentation of their habitat, together with a previous study on the impacts of poaching, I am concerned about the future of this species.”

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

The shrinking forest habitat of the panda forces the animals to make hard decisions. For instance, they have to decide whether to live closer to predators or adapt to life near encroaching 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, that drastically reduces the capacity for red pandas to do this,” Bista said, “As the availability of suitable forests shrink, it’s up to the red panda to weigh up its options on how to best survive.

Unfortunately, these types of compromises can lead towards a decline in red panda populations and possibly to eventual extinction. 

The study is published in the journal Landscape Ecology.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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