Indian scientists are building a reference DNA database for red panda populations in the country that will help in conservation and combating illegal wildlife trade.In India, the animal is found in three states only: West Bengal (Darjeeling district only), Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. But, according to scientists, due to habitat fragmentation and rapid land use changes, the red panda populations exist in a series of local, small disconnected populations in India.While red panda related crimes are at a relatively low level in India compared to Nepal, experts advise threat assessment, population estimations, boosting community conservation initiatives, building on red panda crime database and creating DNA databases at regional levels. Indian scientists are building a DNA database for red panda populations in the country, even as a report warns of “serious threats” to the bushy-tailed and chestnut-furred animals. The main threats are from habitat degradation, amid “low levels” of crime related to the species in India. According to Zoological Survey of India scientist Mukesh Thakur, the reference DNA database for existing populations of red pandas will aid conservation efforts and come in handy to combat illegal wildlife trade by helping law enforcement officials assign the seizure (of illegal wildlife trade derivatives) to the source of origin, which would aid prosecution. Thakur has also acknowledged and accepted the recent genetic evidence that red pandas are actually two separate species – Chinese (Ailurus styani) and Himalayan red panda (Ailurus fulgens). The two species are distributed in the eastern and north-eastern Himalayan subalpine conifer forests and the eastern Himalayan broadleaf forests, which geographically fall in China, India, Nepal, Bhutan, and northern Myanmar. The International Union for Conservation of Nature categorises red panda as endangered because its population has “plausibly declined by 50 percent over the last three generations (estimated at 18 years) and this decline is projected to continue, and probably intensify, in the next three generations.” Experts estimate that around 14,500–15,000 individual red pandas remain worldwide. The main reasons for the population decline are habitat loss and degradation in almost all the range countries. In India, the animal is distributed in three states only: West Bengal (Darjeeling district only), Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, Thakur said, noting there is no recent report of red panda presence from the Meghalaya Plateau. The animal is protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 in India, which means it is accorded the same protection as tigers. The red panda is distributed in the eastern and north-eastern Himalayan subalpine conifer forests and the eastern Himalayan broadleaf forests, which geographically falls in China, India, Nepal, Bhutan, and northern Myanmar. Photo from DST INSPIRE RED PANDA Project, Zoological Survey of India (ZSI). Adding to conservation efforts, Thakur is leading the study of fine-scale landscape genetics of red panda covering the eastern Himalayas and building a reference DNA database to help in the identification of confiscated cases, under an ongoing five-year project of the government of India’s Department of Science and Technology INSPIRE Faculty scheme. “We are collecting poop of red pandas from all across the distribution in the eastern Himalayas to build a DNA database and we have already done it from the wild populations in Kangchenjunga landscape, covering North Bengal and Sikkim. We collected 250 plus faecal samples and genetically identified 24 unique individuals in the landscape in India,” Thakur of Centre for DNA Taxonomy and coordinator – Centre for Forensic Sciences, Zoological Survey of India, told Mongabay-India. “Now in the second phase, we are focussing on red panda populations in Arunachal Pradesh. So far about 50 faecal samples have been collected from various parts of Arunachal Pradesh and my students, Hiren and Supriyo are still in the field for sample collection and conducting surveys. I hope by next year we will have the complete picture of red panda populations in India,” he said. The 25,085 square km Kangchenjunga landscape (KL), encompassing India, Nepal and Bhutan, ranges in elevation from 40 metres to 8,586 metres and is home to more than seven million people, while hosting more than 4,500 species of plants and at least 169 mammal and 618 bird species. The landscape supports the transboundary population of red pandas in India, Nepal, and Bhutan. To learn more about how populations are faring in the India part of the landscape, the scientists undertook distribution modelling and fine-scale landscape genetics. They discovered that due to habitat fragmentation and rapid changes in the land use patterns, the red panda populations exist in a series of localised, small, imperfectly connected populations. “Our investigations suggest that about 1309.54 square km area is suitable for red pandas in the Indian part of the Kangchenjunga landscape, of which 62.21 percent area falls under the protected area network,” Thakur said, adding that there is no India-level exact estimate of the red panda populations. The National Studbook on the red panda (April 2018) states that the current captive population of red pandas in India includes 24 individuals in three zoos. The population retains a limited amount of genetic diversity and includes closely related individuals.