Genes connect, geography separates red pandas

  • Endangered red panda population in the eastern Himalayas needs better protection by way of conserving its core habitat and securing corridors, a new study finds.
  • Landscape barriers such as rivers and mountains can affect the gene flow and movement of the species, leading to inbreeding, genetic drift, and demographic consequences.
  • Community conservation is suggested as most of the red panda core habitat seems to be falling outside the protected area network.

Certain landscape features, such as connectivity, play an important role in the genetic flow and diversity of a species which, in turn, strengthen the species’ success in reproduction and long-term survival. However, geographical barriers such as rivers and mountains, amplified by human-induced habitat fragmentation, obstruct animal movement and hence, gene flow, leading to decreased genetic diversity within and among populations.

In a new study conducted to assess the gene flow and movement of endangered red panda (Ailurus fulgens) populations in the eastern Himalayas, researchers identified barriers that potentially impede their movement and gene flow. They also identified core habitats of red pandas in the region and corridors that need better conservation, preferably in the form of community-led conservation.

A unique small mammal

With distinct morphological features including a unique ruddy coat, a short range not exceeding two to three kilometres, and a rather laid-back demeanour, red pandas make one wonder if they were truly suited for the rough wild world. “They have an incurable sweet tooth. They can occupy the bamboo, munching on the sweet tender shoots for hours on end,” says Mukesh Thakur of the Zoological Survey of India, the lead author of the study. Belonging to the order Carnivora, the red panda’s dentition and digestive system belie their strictly plant-based diet. Red pandas are classified as carnivores because they’re descended from the same ancestors as other carnivores.

As the only living member of the Ailuridae family, their taxonomic classification was a subject of much debate in science for a long time. Initially classified as members of the raccoon family (Procyonidae) and later as part of the bear family (Ursidae), genetic studies eventually established their unique taxonomic position in the family Ailuridae, where the red panda is the only living member.

The red panda, an understudied small mammal, occurs in the states of Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and parts of West Bengal in India. Image by Supriyo Dalui.

Red panda has remained largely understudied in India with a 2001 estimation by naturalist Anwaruddin Choudhury still serving as the primary reference for its population. In the last decade, however, there has been a notable increase in interest among researchers to study the species.

Head of the department of endangered species at Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Gopi G.V., who leads the Pan-India Assessment and Monitoring of Endangered Species under the Integrated Development of Wildlife Habitats of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) says that there is now a better understanding of the species, though knowledge gaps remain. “The animal is elusive and occurs mostly in tough and remote terrains in high elevations, making it hard to study it,” he says.

There are two types of red pandas — the Himalayan red panda (Aurilius fulgens fulgens) and the Chinese red panda (Aurilius fulgens styani). Traditionally considered to be a subspecies, attributed to the geographical barrier of the Nujiang river in China, a 2020 genetic study delineated them as two distinct phylogenetic species – the smallest set of organisms that share an ancestor and can be distinguished from other such sets.

Nepal-based researcher Arjun Thapa who was a part of this 2020 landmark study highlights that earlier studies lacked sufficient sampling from the Himalayan ranges. Considering the Himalayas represent one of the most glaciated areas outside of polar regions and adjoin the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, past climatic conditions likely played a significant role in shaping biodiversity in this region compared to others, Thapa tells Mongabay-India via an email. To address those gaps, Thapa and team conducted genetic sampling across the westernmost distribution range, such as Rara National Park in Nepal and combined this data with samples from the easternmost distribution range in China. “It provided genetic evidence supporting the existence of two phylogenetic species of red pandas — the Himalayan red panda found in Nepal, India, Bhutan and southern Tibet in China, and the Chinese red panda, distributed in India, China and Myanmar,” Thapa says.

While India is believed to be home for only the Himalayan red panda, genetic studies are underway to ascertain the presence of Chinese red panda in the Indian Himalayas with the Siang river acting as the barrier.

Securing corridors, maintaining core habitats

Red pandas are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of threatened species, with less than 10,000 individuals in the wild. Endemic to the Himalayas, they are distributed over parts of China, India, Nepal, Myanmar and Bhutan.

Siang river in Arunachal Pradesh. Habitat connectivity is important for the genetic flow and species diversity of animals but landscape features such as mountains and rivers form barriers to this. Image by Mukesh Thakur.

Armed with the knowledge that biological corridors play a significant role in supporting the movement of species, Thakur and his team set out to understand how the landscape features in Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern Himalayas, which is believed to hold a substantial percentage of India’s red panda population, shape gene flow in these animals. “Landscape barriers such as urban settlements or farmland that affect the movement of the species can disrupt gene flow and confine individuals to meta-populations, creating a genetic bottleneck and resulting in the loss of genetic diversity,” explains Thakur.

The study recognised substantial landscape barriers, including Sela Pass in the western region, Siang river in the central region, and the Dibang and Lohit rivers, along with Dihang, Dipher, and Kumjawng passes in the eastern region, which hinder the gene flow. According to Thakur, these isolated pockets prevent individuals from moving beyond their territories, leading to inbreeding, genetic drift, and demographic consequences.

Indigenous knowledge to enable conservation

The study area covered 11 protected areas with two of them falling in the red panda habitat range. The paper identified that 14.5% or 12,189.75 km2 of the eastern Himalayan landscape formed the core habitat of the red panda with only 443 km2 falling within the protected areas of Dibang Valley wildlife sanctuary, Namdapha tiger reserve, Eagle Nest wildlife sanctuary and Mouling national park. Eighteen core habitats for red pandas were located, ranging from 68 km2 to 2825 km2, predominantly situated outside the protected area network.

An arboreal species, red panda feeds mostly on tender shoots of bamboo. Image by Hiren Khatri.

The researchers call for a reevaluation of the protected area network. The study emphasises the importance of community-led conservation by establishing community reserves in the core habitats of the red panda, as most of these critical areas lie outside the existing protected area network. The study also suggests the need to develop a long-term conservation and management plan for red pandas in the transboundary landscape, covering China, Nepal and Bhutan and working along with these neighbouring countries to achieve that.

Gopi says he believes that the study has commendable inferences that have direct implication on the conservation of red panda in India. He says that community conservation, as suggested as a conservation methodology in the study, is important as indigenous knowledge can play a crucial role in conservation of elusive species like red panda that occur mostly in difficult, hostile terrains. He, however, does not agree with the suggestion to redraw protected areas as it is not a viable solution. “Local community participation and creation of ‘Other Effective Area-based Conservation Methods’ or OECMs as suggested by the IUCN are potential ways to plan effective conservation,” he suggests.

Read more: Indian scientists building DNA database to protect the elusive red panda


Banner image: A Himalayan red panda perched on a tree. Red pandas are arboreal, occurring mostly in high altitudes and tough terrains making their study difficult. Image by Mukesh Thakur.

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