Editor in Chief: Moh. Reza Huwaida Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018

Challenges of Red Panda Conservation in India


Challenges of Red Panda Conservation in India

Red panda (Ailurus fulgens) conservation is a monumental challenge in India. The beautiful mammal which is reported to be found in the Himalayan forests of the Darjeeling district of northern West Bengal in Eastern India; and in the states of Sikkim and western Arunachal Pradesh in North-East India is considered to be an endangered mammal by IUCN. Red Panda, also referred to as Lesser Panda is believed to be surviving in the bamboo forests in the hills and mountains of neighbouring NE Indian states of Meghalaya and Assam. A disjunct sub population is also reported from the Meghalaya plateau. However, unlike Arunachal Pradesh they have not been recorded in video footages in Assam or Meghalaya and hence need to be surveyed properly before confirmation.  It could be that the latter two states may have been part of the species former range stretching vast areas of Eastern Himalayan bamboo forests spread across northern West Bengal into NE India. In addition to India the species is also found in neighbouring Nepal, Bhutan, southern China and Myanmar. Two sub species are known: one that occurs in Nepal, Bhutan and India (Ailurus fulgens fulgens); and the other found in southern China and Myanmar (Ailurus fulgens styani).
Across the entire range spreading across five different nations, the Red Panda habitat has been significantly impacted due to severe anthropogenic pressures resulting in rapid destruction of bamboo forests causing habitat destruction and habitat fragmentation. Furthermore, intense pressure of indigenous communities hunting, poaching and capturing Red Panda illegally for active wildlife trade and trafficking rackets prevalent in the region is further decimating wild Red Panda populations. Current estimates indicate that most probably less than 10,000 individuals may be surviving in the wild across five nations. There are only two captive breeding centers for Red Panda in India, one in the state of West Bengal and the other in Sikkim. The Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal has been successful in the captive breeding of several Himalayan mammals and birds including Snow Leopard and Red Panda. This is the largest as well as the oldest Red Panda captive breeding centers of the country. The Red Panda captive breeding facility at the Himalayan Zoological Park; situated in the capital city of Gangtok, Sikkim is relatively new. Both centers have reported live births in their corresponding captive Red Panda populations. However, attempts of releasing captive bred Red Pandas into the wild have not yet achieved any major success.
Almost 50% of the released individuals died due to their inability to cope with their natural wild habitats. Hence, it has been a stumbling blockade in the success of Red Panda captive breeding and introduction to the wild program. Another issue has been that defenseless Red Pandas are often violently attacked by feral dogs in India from villages or human settlements adjoining wildlife sanctuaries or nature reserves. It has been a matter for grave concern for those unfortunate animals that accidentally move out of their forest homes and venture close to human settlements. Furthermore, surviving Red Pandas returning to the forests from the villages run the risk of contracting diseases from domestic animals that graze in the encroached lands in and around the wildlife reserves; and also from the bites and scratches made by packs of feral dogs attacking the unfortunate Red Pandas. Often these dogs are provoked by the villagers in attacking wildlife for an easy access to bush meat, animal skin and bones and other body parts.
Poaching and illegally capturing wild Red Pandas in India has been a serious issue and need to be addressed immediately. The remote, rural communities adjoining forest reserves in India are economically backward; and as such completely dependent on the local forests for their daily sustenance. The indigenous communities, fringe dwellers and forest residents has been repeatedly encroaching the forested areas out of economic desperation; and the resulting human-animal conflict has been taking heavy toll on the local wildlife populations and scanty forest resources. The rise of insurgency in some of these forested areas has further promoted poaching and other activities detrimental to the security of forest guards and associated forest staff members; as well as the local wildlife including Red Pandas.
The porous international borders within the region has been responsible for the illegal trafficking of drugs, people, live wildlife as well as wildlife products between the adjacent countries making conservation extremely challenging. The high demand for Red Panda cubs as pets in the illegal wildlife industry operating in the region and across the international borders has further enhanced the risk for the Red Panda populations. Often the parents are brutally killed for capturing the helpless young cubs; many of which die in the process of transportation due to lack of appropriate veterinary care, malnutrition, dehydration and trauma. Overall, the complexity of several anthropogenic issues existing in the region has further complicated the successful conservation of the Red Pandas in India.
The captive breeding program and introduction of the captive bred Red Pandas to the wild need adequate funding, trained personnel and advanced technical skills in their rewilding approaches. Adjoining nations need to coordinate and collaborate with one another to reduce cross-border wildlife trafficking and poaching. Intelligence sharing in border management among border security groups of adjoining countries; and their active coordination with forest staff members of the adjoining forests of neighbouring countries through Joint Conservation Management (JCM) or Joint Conservation Initiative (JCI) will be important for successful conservation of endangered wildlife in the region.

A formal agreement between SAARC and ASEAN member nations with China can significantly improve the conservation scenario of South China, South and SE Asia. Such an initiative will be beneficial for the forest and wildlife management of this highly biodiverse region. Joint surveillance and monitoring, joint surveys, exchanging breeding stocks, experience and technical skills could help in the successful conservation of major wildlife in the region including Red Panda in a comprehensive manner. Furthermore, economic conditions of the people living around the forest reserves and wildlife sanctuaries need to be improved and should be made stakeholders in the process of conservation. Unless the anthropogenic issues are dealt with successfully, no conservation efforts could be effective in any region. Furthermore, awareness regarding the conservation of local forests and wildlife need to be inculcated among local village residents, fringe dwellers and forest residents slowly over time for generating sensitivity about local wildlife will be important.

Saikat Kumar Basu is a Canada and India based freelance journalist. He regularly contributes to newspapers, newsletters, bulletins, magazines and journals in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

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