Let’s talk about what we can do to help red pandas

Red pandas are arguably one of the cutest, most squee-worthy species on the planet, but they’re also one of the most threatened.

An article published in the New York Times this week details what researchers are saying about red pandas, which are actually the only species in their family, Ailuridae. We read that article with so much interest and are now more eager than ever to learn what we can do to help these creatures — we’re also incredibly eager to share what w learned. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature currently lists red pandas as “vulnerable,” but some scientists are pushing for them to be listed as endangered, which is a lot more serious.

Much as we may love them, humans are actually the red pandas’ current biggest threat, through expanding populations and climate change. That puts a pit in our stomaches.

The adorable creatures are built for a very specific environment, on mountain slopes in western China and Nepal between an altitude of 4,600 and 15,000 feet. As human populations increase, though, that small territory is decreasing. Deforestation hurts their natural home, and diseases, like distemper from domestic dogs, come with invading human populations.

There are some groups working to preserve red pandas’ natural environments, but they can’t help prevent the effects of climate change.

“I think down the road what may actually do them in is climate change,” Dr. Elizabeth Freeman, a conservation biologist at George Mason University and a research associate at the Smithsonian Institute, told the New York Times. “Because they are in such a small niche in the Himalayas, and as climate change warms that area and moves that population higher in elevation, they’re going to lose habitat probably faster than they can accommodate to climate change.”

As the red pandas are the only in their family — and one researcher argues they’re the only true pandas, scientifically speaking — losing them would be losing an entire subsection of animals.

Scientists are trying to protect the red pandas, but it’s difficult as they do not know all that much about them. Red pandas are secretive in nature, so most of the observation is done on those bred and raised in captivity. Scientists are still trying to figure out very basic questions about the species. They have found that dental disease, fractured tails, and varying levels of vitamins and minerals are prevalent among red pandas, but don’t know why.

But what is known is that without changes in human behavior, the species is seriously at risk. Red pandas are yet another reason why we all need to be paying more attention to climate change and trying to alter behavior from personal to legislative levels. Unless we can decrease the effects of climate change, more and more animals will be threatened as their environments transform beneath their sweet, furry feet. Red pandas, included.

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[Images via Shutterstock]