Using GPS telemetry, scientists from the University of Queensland, the University of Southern Queensland and the Red Panda Network have identified 10 red pandas (Ailurus fulgens) and documented camera trap interference in eastern Nepal for 12 months. They found that human impact causes the mammal to restrict its movements, further fragmenting its habitat.
The red panda is the only living member of the genus Ailurus and the family Ailuridae.
This medium-sized species was once widespread throughout Eurasia but now inhabits the temperate forests of the eastern Himalayas.
With fewer than 10,000 individuals remaining in the wild, it is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
A solitary, mysterious, and territorial tree mammal, the red panda is difficult to study in the wild.
The animal is a nutritionist, feeding almost entirely on bamboo. Habitat loss and fragmentation are the biggest threats to red panda conservation.
“Our research shows that current patterns of habitat fragmentation and forest use from infrastructure projects such as new roads put the red panda at increased risk,” said lead author Damber Bista, a researcher in the School of Agriculture and Food Sciences at the University of Queensland.
“For this reason, red pandas change their activity to minimize their interactions with disturbances such as humans, dogs or livestock, and this drastically disrupts the natural interactions between animals, leading to population isolation.”
Bista and colleagues conducted their study in eastern Nepal, which borders India to the east.
In the vicinity of the study area lived more than 15 human dwellings with a population of almost 700 people.
Human settlements, roads, hiking trails, and ranching activities were present year-round. This makes it an ideal place to study the effects of disturbance and habitat fragmentation on the red panda.
Researchers captured 10 red pandas, including six females and four males, and fitted them with GPS collars.
“There was a red panda that he kept a close eye on,” Bista said.
“An adult male ‘Chintapu’, named for the place where he was found, was known for his migratory nature and in a 24-hour period the mammal covered 5 km, which is unheard of for a typical red panda.”
“So what followed – fresh bamboo or maybe a wild flower delicacy? It was during the breeding season.”
“Other Red Pandas that we followed closely for 12 months were a female ‘Paaruhaang’, named after a local deity, a female ‘Mechaacha’ meaning daughter and ‘Ninaammaa’ meaning Queen of the Sky in the local dialect. “
“There was also ‘Brian,’ named after the founder of the Red Panda Network.”
“Given the results of this study showing the fragmentation of their habitat, along with a previous study on the impact of poaching, I am concerned for the future of this species,” he said.
“While red pandas can adapt to some degree of habitat impact, they may be vulnerable to local extinction under these conditions, putting the broader population of the species at risk.”
The dwindling amount of wild forest is forcing the red panda into situations where it must choose between living closer to predators or adapting to coexistence with humans.
“As you might 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 so,” Bista said.
“As the availability of suitable forests decreases, it is up to the red panda to weigh its options on how best to survive.”
“This trade-off may lead to increased mortality risk and population decline in the long term.”
“Our recommendation is that human activities are tightly regulated during most, if not all, biologically crucial times, such as mating, dispersal and birth times,” he said.
“As for conservation programs, we recommend that they focus on identifying ecologically sensitive areas, maintaining habitat continuity, and minimizing projects that disrupt habitats, such as B. building roads and tending livestock.”
“Where road construction cannot be avoided, we propose avoiding core areas and restrictions on speed limits and noise, and increasing deer crossings in high-risk areas.”
The results were published in the journal landscape ecology.
D.Bista et al. 2022. Impact of disturbance and habitat fragmentation on an arboreal habitat-specialized mammal using GPS telemetry: a case of the red panda. Landsc Ecol 37, 795-809; doi: 10.1007/s10980-021-01357-w