Using GPS telemetry, scientists from the University of Queensland, the University of Southern Queensland and the Red Panda Network have monitored 10 red pandas (Ailurus fulgens) and documented disturbances using camera trapping for 12 months in eastern Nepal. They’ve found that human impact is causing the mammal to restrict its movements which is further fragmenting their habitat.
The red panda is the only living member of the genus Ailurus and the family Ailuridae.
This medium-sized species was once widely distributed across Eurasia but now inhabits the temperate forests in the eastern Himalaya.
With less than 10,000 individuals left in the wild, it is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Being a solitary, cryptic and territorial arboreal mammal, the red panda is difficult to study in the wild.
The animal is a diet specialist feeding almost exclusively on bamboo. Habitat loss and fragmentation are the major threats to red panda conservation.
“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 lead author Damber Bista, a researcher in the School of Agriculture and Food Sciences at the University of Queensland.
“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 and colleagues conducted their study in eastern Nepal which borders to India in the east.
There were more than 15 human-habitation sites with a population of nearly 700 people living in the vicinity of the study area.
Human settlements, roads, walking trails, and livestock herding activities were present throughout the year. This makes it an ideal site for studying the effect of disturbances and habitat fragmentation on red panda.
The researchers captured and equipped 10 red pandas including six females and four males with GPS collars.
“There was one red panda which he kept a close eye on,” Bista said.
“An adult male ‘Chintapu,’ named after the location he was found, was known for its roaming nature and in one 24 hour period the mammal traveled 5 km which is unheard of for a typical red panda.”
“So, what was it after — fresh bamboo, or perhaps a wild blossom delicacy? It was during breeding season.”
“Other red pandas that we followed closely for 12-months included a female ‘Paaruhaang,’ named after a local deity, a female ‘Mechaachaa’ meaning daughter, and ‘Ninaammaa’ which means Queen of the Sky in local dialect.”
“There was also ‘Brian,’ named after the founder of the Red Panda Network.”
“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,” he said.
“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 dwindling amount of wild forest forces the red panda into situations where it must decide on whether to live closer to predators or adapt to co-exist with 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.”
“This trade-off can lead to an increased risk of mortality and population decline in the long run.”
“Our recommendation is for human activities to be strictly regulated during most if not all biologically crucial times such as mating, dispersal and birthing seasons,” he said.
“As for conservation programs, we recommend they focus on identifying ecologically sensitive areas, maintaining habitat continuity, and minimizing projects that will disturb habitats, such as building roads and herding livestock.”
“If road construction can’t be avoided, we suggest avoiding core areas and restrictions on speed limits and noise, and for an increase in wildlife crossings in high-risk areas.”
The findings were published in the journal Landscape Ecology.
D. Bista et al. 2022. Effect of disturbances and habitat fragmentation on an arboreal habitat specialist mammal using GPS telemetry: a case of the red panda. Landsc Ecol 37, 795-809; doi: 10.1007/s10980-021-01357-w
This article was first published by Sci-News on 7 June 2022. Lead Image: Bista et al. explored how the red panda (Ailurus fulgens), an iconic endangered habitat specialist, behaves when faced with disturbances and habitat fragmentation. Image credit: Damber Bista.
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