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Pandas are cute, but spare a thought for red cousin

By Chris Peterson | China Daily | Updated: 2017-01-15 16:32

If giant pandas had a cuteness rating, they'd be off the chart. What's not to like about a cuddly black-and-white bundle of fur that acts up for the camera every time it snows?

China has made Herculean efforts to protect what is, to all intents and purposes, a national symbol. And there's good news, too, for all us pandaphiles.

The 2014 Chinese census showed there were 1,835 pandas living in the wild in their natural bamboo forest habitat in southwest China - up from the 2004 census, which listed 1,600 wild pandas.

And thanks to a 30-year conservation effort by the Chinese authorities, there are now about 300 giant pandas in captivity, most in Chinese conservation areas and zoos but about 50 in zoos worldwide, on loan from China and under strict supervision. With, of course, a steady supply of bamboo.

But what about their distant cousin, the red panda? Actually, scientists now say they are not part of the same genus, although they share the same habitat and love the same food - succulent bamboo stalks.

In my book, red pandas are also well up there on the cuteness scale, so let's take a closer look.

Smaller than his so-called cousin, the red panda (xiaoxiongmao in Chinese) looks more like a cross between a small cat and a bear, often with red fur and vivid white markings around the eyes and muzzle, as well as a distinctive bushy ringed tail.

They are also found in Southwest China, and - like the giant panda - are an endangered species, although the giant panda has recently been upgraded to the lesser level of vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the international body for species protection.

But the red panda is also found in parts of Tibet and Nepal. It's a solitary creature that also likes bamboo.

Estimates of the wild population are difficult, but experts reckon there are about 10,000 of the little critters out there. The latest statistics show about 800 living happily in captivity.

China's conservation efforts also extend to the red panda, with over 40 percent of its natural habitat in the country's southwest classified as protected area. Hunting and trapping are strictly forbidden.

So why am I using my column as a pulpit to preach about pandas, red and giant?

I think it's because, like many people, I've become acutely aware recently that for some species, time is running out.

No one who has seen a tiger at a zoo can fail to be awed by the sheer power of what is, after all, a very sophisticated killing machine.

Yet tigers are under threat.

The Zoological Society of London, with which China Daily has worked closely in the past, is focusing on preserving various species of tigers worldwide.

These magnificent beasts are constantly under threat - there are those who still believe its skin, claws, teeth and bones are essential ingredients of traditional Asian medicine.

You'd better sit down for this factoid. In past decades 95 percent - yes, 95 percent - of the world's tiger population has disappeared.

In Indonesia, ZSL is supporting local wildlife rangers to protect the remaining 300 or so Sumatran tigers.

There is hope - in 2010, worldwide tiger numbers hit an all-time low of 3,200 animals in the wild. Now, for the first time in more than a century, a global census showed that the number had risen to 3,890 animals.

So whether it's a panda, giant or red, or a tiger, or an elephant - in fact anything that makes this planet worth living on - just say yes to conservation.

We won't regret it.

The author is managing editor of China Daily European Bureau. Contact the writer at


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