The Red Panda, Ailurus fulgens (”shining cat,” from a Latinized form of the Greek ?, ailouros, “cat,” and the participial form of the Latin fulgere, “to shine”) is a mostly herbivorous mammal, slightly larger than a domestic cat (55 cm long). The Red Panda has semi-retractile claws and, like the Giant Panda, has a “false thumb” which is really an extension of the wrist bone. Thick fur on the soles of the feet offers protection from cold and hides scent glands. The Red Panda is native to the Himalayas in India and Nepal and southern China.
This taxonomic classification of both the Red Panda and Giant Panda has been under debate for many decades, as both species share characteristics of both bears and raccoons. However, they are only very distantly related by remote common ancestry from the Early Tertiary Period. Its common ancestor can be traced back to tens of millions of years ago with a wide distribution across Eurasia. Fossils of the Red Panda have been unearthed from China in the east to Britain in the west (Hu, 1990), and most recently a handful of fossils (Pristinailurus bristoli, Miocene, considered to be a new genus and species of the Red Panda) have also been discovered in North America.
The Red Panda is also known as the Wah because of its distinctive cry. This name was given to it by Thomas Hardwicke, when he introduced it to Europeans in 1821. It is called a Cat Bear because it was thought to be related to a small bear and washes itself like a cat by licking its entire body. Other names include Bear Cat, Cloud Bear, Bright Panda, Common Panda, Fire Cat, Fire Fox, Red Fox, Fox Bear, Himalayan Raccoon, Lesser Panda, Nigalya Ponya, Panda Chico, Panda Éclatant, Panda Rojo, Petit Panda, Poonya, Crimson Ngo, Red Cat, Sankam, Small Panda, Thokya, Wah, Wokdonka, and Vetri, and Ye.
Red Pandas are classified as endangered. No reliable numbers exist for the total population but it is very threatened due to the fragmentation of its natural habitats, their small numbers, and their food specialization needs. In southwest China the Red Panda is hunted for its fur and especially for its highly-valued bushy tail from which hats are produced. In the areas of China, where the Red Panda lives, their fur is often used for local cultural ceremonies and in weddings the bridegroom traditionally carries the hide. The ‘good-luck charm’ hats are used by Chinese newlyweds.
This, and the continuous clearing of the forests, has significantly reduced the population. It is now protected in all countries in which it lives, and the hunting of Red Pandas is illegal everywhere. Nevertheless, poaching continues and they are often illegally hunted and sold to zoos for dumping prices. The IUCN has mandated that small Pandas are a “threatened species“ since 1996, however it is now listed as endangered. It is very difficult to estimate the total population, yet one can assume that they cannot bear much more of a habitat change and that they are in danger of extinction due to the disappearance of the forests and the furtive hunting for its highly-valued tail and fur.
The Chinese name of the Red Panda is pinyin: xi?o xióng m?o, meaning ’small panda’ or, more analytically, ’small bear-cat’, in which ‘bear-cat’ is the Chinese name for the panda. The Chinese name of the Red Panda is based on that of the Giant Panda, unlike English where the Giant Panda has been named after the Red Panda. The Red Panda is also sometimes known as h?o hú (??), which literally translates as “fire fox”, a name which can designate either the red fox or the Red Panda.
The term fire-fox, as used to describe the Red Panda, has been propagated by its use as the logo for the web browser Mozilla Firefox. The old Chinese designation of Red Panda as “fire fox “refers to the Red Panda’s fur color.
In the Indian province of Sikkim the Red Panda is the state animal and it is also the mascot of the Darjeeling international festivals.