Sightings Of Red Pandas In Bhutan Have Decreased In Recent Years

Given the red colour of the animal, Bhutanese believe that red pandas were the reincarnation of monks and encountering the rare mammal was considered a very good omen.

Red Pandas spotted in Bhutan. (Source: Red Panda Network)

 

By Younten Tshedup | Kuensel

 

Almost two years after officials of the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (SWC) installed 10 camera traps, not a single red panda has been caught on the cameras. 

The park officials installed the camera traps in the Shetaymay and Chebaling areas, where red pandas were spotted occasionally. 

According to the highlanders of Merak and Sakteng, they used to see the extremely elusive red panda frequently a decade ago.  

The SWC officials also mentioned that the sightings of the elusive red panda in the highlands have decreased considerably in recent years. 

The highlanders said that portions of their winter pasturelands were home to the endangered species in the SWC.

Where can red pandas be found?

Categorised as an endangered species on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, an estimated 10,000 matured red pandas are distributed among the five Asian countries of Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar and Nepal.

Given the red colour of the animal, Bhutanese believe that red pandas were the reincarnation of monks and encountering the rare mammal was considered a very good omen. 

Meanwhile, of the 10 parks identified in the country, seven (thirteen dzongkhags) of them house the endangered red panda. Officials said that a study on the number of red pandas in the country has not been conducted yet.  

Workshop on red panda conservation held in Trashigang

In order to review and discuss red panda research and conservation strategies in Bhutan, a three-day workshop on red panda conservation was organised by the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary. It was held in Trashigang on 1 May. 

 

Source: Red Panda Network

 

The theme of the workshop was “Ensuring the future of red panda landscapes through national and regional collaboration”.

A total of 30 participants including park managers, researchers, representatives from the WWF (Bhutan and India) and officials from the Department of Forest and Park Services attended the workshop. 

Threats to the red pandas identified

According to the officials, some of the biggest threats to the endangered species are - the loss of habitat and degrading land due to overgrazing and other natural phenomena like landslides. 

One of the participants, Pema Dendup, a forest officer with the Jigme Dorji National Park, said that the presence of livestock had a direct correlation to the habitation of red pandas.

“Since bamboos are the main food for the red pandas, the presence of cattle that also feed on the bamboo creates intense competition which is why livestock disturbed areas is avoided by the species.”  

He also said that livestock are often allowed to stray into the forests without restraint, unaccompanied by herders.

Pema Dendup, in one of his researches conducted on Red Pandas in the Phrumsengla National Park (then Thrumshingla National Park) found that besides the livestock disturbed areas, red pandas avoided human settlements and areas with timber disturbances. 

“Human settlement is generally associated with the presence of dogs and dogs are one of the main threats to the red pandas,” he said.

Activities such as logging and collection of bamboo were also some of the reasons cited in the research as threats to the red panda habitat. 

The research recommended that livestock grazing practice should be minimised in order to protect areas where red panda conservation is a priority.

Bamboo restoration activities could offset damage or loss of bamboo as a result of anthropogenic activities (timber harvesting), he added. 

“Until the impacts of anthropogenic activities are accounted for and mitigated, the protected area coverage should not be considered an adequate measure of the conservation of red pandas,” said Pema Dendup.  

Obstacles faced by Bhutan in red panda conservation

Joanne Millar (PhD) with the Charles Stuart University of Australia said that Bhutan lacks coordination among stakeholders in understanding red pandas and the need to conserve the endangered species. 

“There is a lack of information on red pandas among the Bhutanese. They do not see the red pandas as an iconic species,” she said.

“Globally the number of red pandas are declining and the animals in Bhutan are also faced with similar threats.”

Project to protect red pandas funded by the Darwin Initiative

Joanne Millar said that in an effort to conserve the species in the SWC, a three-year project called ‘sustainable rangeland management for red panda conservation and herder livelihoods’ was initiated last year. 

The project funded by Darwin Initiative, a UK government grant scheme, focuses on improving the degraded rangelands by planting bamboos, providing fences around the protected area and improving the pasturelands.   

The project is currently working on improving the winter grazing land of Shetaymay and Chebaling in Merak. “People used to spot the red pandas in these places a decade ago. Today it is all degraded due to overgrazing,” she said.  

Joanne Millar said that at the end of the workshop, a draft national conservation action plan for red panda would be developed.

 “Designing projects and availing funds for red panda conservation activities could also be enhanced once the action plan is developed.”

“We can then discuss ways to link Bhutan to the wider international conservation networks,” Millar said.

 

This article first appeared in Kuensel and has been edited for the Bhutan Times.

 


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