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Roads, human activity take a toll on red pandas: Q&A with researcher Damber Bista

red panda

Banner image: A red panda, once thought to be related to racoons or bears, but now known to be a family of their own Image by Mathias Appel via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

  • Damber Bista is a Nepali conservation scientist studying the country’s population of red pandas, an endangered species.
  • He says there needs to be much more work done to protect the species, given that 70% of their habitat falls outside of protected areas.
  • In an interview with Mongabay, Bista talks about the added stress that habitat fragmentation is putting on juvenile red pandas, the need for landscape-level conservation measures, and the importance of long-term studies.

KATHMANDU — The spring season in the Northern Hemisphere is a critical time for red pandas, particularly in Nepal. This is the period when these furry, tree-dwelling animals spend a lot of time on the ground to look for food. It’s also the time when breeding adults of the species, Ailurus fulgens, start to reproduce, and when cubs born the previous year explore their habitat in search of a new home.

These are some of the findings conservationist Damber Bista made while working on his Ph.D. at the University of Queensland, Australia. As part of the study, Bista and his team fitted 10 red pandas in eastern Nepal with GPS collars, so that they could track them to look at the effects of human disturbances on the species.

Mongabay’s Abhaya Raj Joshi spoke to Bista recently over video call to learn about his work. The following interview has been translated from Nepali and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: Could you please describe the main objectives of your study?

Damber Bista: My main overall objective was to look at the effects of human disturbance and habitat fragmentation on red pandas. I tried to look at these issues from different indicators such as their space use pattern, daily movement and behavior while close to a road. Also, as we didn’t have previous studies on how cubs disperse after leaving their mother, I also looked into it. The other objective was related to their recursive behavior under which they spend a lot of time in a particular area and visit the area very frequently.

Red panda Nepal
Damber Bista (right) and his team member capturing a red panda for GPS collaring in eastern Nepal. Image courtesy of Damber Bista

Mongabay: You said you collared 10 red pandas. Was this a sample that truly represented the age and sex composition of the population? Also, you only looked at the movement of the collared individuals for a year. That particular year could have witnessed an anomaly in temperature or precipitation, as events like these have become more common due to climate change.

Damber Bista: Let me first tell you about the 10 red pandas we collared. If you look at the sample in terms of age, seven were adults and three were cubs (we named them Senehang, Bhumo and Mechacha). Four of them were male, including one male cub, and six were female (including two female cubs). Ideally, we would have liked to collar more red pandas, but getting government permission to collar endangered and iconic species such as red pandas is not easy. That’s why the sample size of GPS collar studies on animals such as red pandas is always small. In the ’80s, Nepali researchers used telemetry to study six red pandas in eastern Nepal.

I agree that a year may not be enough to study an animal like the red panda. I think the best results would come from a study that follows the entire life span of a red panda, from its birth to dispersal and adulthood to death. But that doesn’t seem possible.

Mongabay: What were the major findings?

Damber Bista: We found that red pandas don’t like any form of human disturbance, be it noise from settlements or construction of roads or grazing of livestock. We saw that they didn’t want to spend much time in disturbed areas such as areas close to roads and human settlements. The road acted as a partial barrier for red pandas that even demarcated their range. The roads are not as strict a barrier as in what we have seen in the case of tigers. But they do have their impact. This may be explained by the fact that the study was carried out during the COVID-19 days, when road traffic was highly reduced and the hill areas experience far smaller volumes of traffic compared to the plains, where the tigers live.

Mongabay: We sometimes hear that animals too are intelligent and can adapt quickly to changing environments. Recently, there was a video on social media of a tiger using a suspension bridge to cross a river.

Damber Bista: Yes, I partially agree with you. However, the body size and movement patterns of animals play an important role in determining their capacity to adapt to changes in the environment. For example, tigers don’t get attacked by other animals while crossing the road, while red pandas do. Predators such as feral and wild dogs and at least seven other cats believed to be sharing their habitat with the animal pounce on red pandas whenever they see them. We were fortunate that none of the animals we collared were killed by predators.

Mongabay: What did you find about their recursion and habitat selection?

Damber Bista: We found that it avoids places with high disturbance and fragmentation for recursion. It likes to live in quiet and dense forests of high quality, avoiding any human activity. But as we see a rise in the number of settlements and roads, questions are raised over the long-term sustainability of their habitats.

GPS readings from collared red pandas over a period of 11 months. The Singalila National Park is in neighboring India. Image courtesy of Damber Bista

Mongabay: The graphic you prepared to show the dispersal behavior of the three red panda cubs was quite interesting.

Damber Bista: Yes, it was indeed interesting. The female cub we named Bhumo (in red) traveled a distance of 17 kilometers [nearly 11 miles] in both Nepal and India — red pandas don’t care about national boundaries — to look for a place to call home after leaving her mother’s care. Similarly, Mechacha (in purple) also traveled a long distance to do that. In the case of Senehang (the male cub), we couldn’t track its movements much because his collar stopped working.

Mongabay: This shows that dispersal is getting difficult and stressful for juvenile red pandas. Do you think this will have an impact on their energy budget and stress hormone levels?

Damber Bista: Although we haven’t looked into it, there are reasons to believe that fragmentation of habitat and increase in human disturbance is making it difficult for cubs to find new homes. Red pandas are very territorial animals. A male’s habitat may overlap with that of two to four females, but other than that, the adults shoo away the cubs when they see them.

Mongabay: What are the implications of your work for conservation of these species?

Damber Bista: I think the major takeaway is that we need to do much more to conserve this endangered species so that they are physiologically and genetically sound. Around 70% of the habitat falls outside of protected areas, where humans go about their daily lives. Therefore we need the involvement of communities in conservation programs.

Similarly, most of our conservation work is limited to some pockets in areas such as eastern Nepal where international NGOs such as the Red Panda Network are doing a good job. We need conservation programs at a more landscape level, which would involve protecting and maintaining key corridors to neighboring India. We have a national park on the Indian side of the border near key eastern habitats of the red panda. When we have corridors connecting key habitats, the gene pool becomes better and inbreeding doesn’t take place.

We also need to focus on red panda habitats in western Nepal, where forest fragmentation in key habitats is going on at a rapid rate. Most of our activities, both conservation and research, tend to have focused on the eastern and central sectors. That needs to change.

Abhaya Raj Joshi is a staff writer for Nepal at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @arj272.

Banner image: A red panda eating bamboo shoots. Image by Mathias Appel via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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