Research targets rare red panda


The endangered red panda

The endangered red panda

A Charles Darwin University PhD candidate is working to help an elusive endangered panda in the forests of Nepal in the face of stiff competition from local villagers who also depend on forest resources.

Manoj Bhatta, who was raised in a remote area of Nepal, has researched the red panda (Ailurus fulgens fulgens) since 2013 when he joined a Red Panda Network project in Jumla district in the mid-west of the country.

“They are very shy, nocturnal, tree-dwelling animals, so they are very difficult to sight,” he said. “The population in the entire potential red panda habitats of Nepal is estimated at 300 to 600.”

With its global population estimated at less than 10,000 and declining, in 2016 its status changed from “vulnerable” to “endangered” on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. Despite its protection by national laws in a range of countries, it continues to face threats such as habitat loss and fragmentation, hunting, poaching, and inbreeding depression.

One of its greatest threats, though, comes from local villagers.

“Due to deep-seated poverty, almost 80 per cent of people depend on the forest resources for their livelihoods,” he said. “Without the forests the people cannot survive.”

He said that conflict between people and the red panda had been on-going for centuries, and without education and intervention the future conservation of the species was in doubt.

“Livestock, mainly cattle, are taken into the forests during the summer months to graze,” he said. “Villages also take dogs to guard their herds from tigers, but often the dogs kill the red pandas.”

He said the Nepalese people also had rich traditions harvesting plants for use as medicines, and used Himalayan bamboos for cattle fodder, as roofing and fencing material, and occasionally as a vegetable.

“Bamboo provides 98 per cent of the red panda diet, so this harvesting not only threatens their food, but also their habitat,” he said. “There are also poachers who set traps and snares for other economically important wild animals and the red pandas are mistakenly trapped.”

Determined to work towards creating a more sustainable future for his people and for the red panda, Manoj’s PhD research is titled “Conservation Governance of Red Panda Habitat in Nepal”.

He said he hoped his research would lead to better governance and provision of alternative livelihoods for the people who traditionally depended on the forests.

“Many people do not even know that the panda exists or the impacts they are having on their habitat,” he said. “It is important that there is a shift in thinking towards conservation rather than seeing the forests as resources.”

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