By DAN HARRIS and JAKE WHITMAN
The red panda, an animal that once roamed vast regions of the Earth, is now on the brink of extinction, and its adorable face and gentle curiosity is only adding to its plight.
These creatures can be found in the wild at the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, in countries such as Nepal, Bhutan and in the jungle areas surrounding Darjeeling, India, a crowded, chaotic city known for growing some of the world’s best teas.
But even there, the red panda’s natural habitat, the best chance to see one face-to-face is at a zoo. Conservationists believe there are less than 10,000 left in the wild.
Once sought after to keep as pets, red pandas are now hunted for their pelts. In Nepal and northern India, poachers can command a heavy price for their body parts. In some parts of China, their bushy tails are considered good luck charms in wedding ceremonies.
Red pandas also face the threat of deforestation. It takes as much as four pounds of bamboo a day to keep these little guys going.
Darjeeling is home to one of the most successful red panda breeding centers in the world: The Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park. But while zoo officials hope their match-making will produce offspring that potentially could be returned to the wild, they also worry about what they called the “red panda curse” – their cute faces and loving natures make these animals a target.
Red pandas seem so lovable that they have been featured in movies – Dustin Hoffman voiced the character Master Shifu in the “Kung Fu Panda” movies – as well as video games, postage stamps and beer bottles. Even “Firefox,” the popular Web browser, is named after them.
When red pandas were first discovered in the early 1800s, a full 50 years before the giant panda, they were a must-have accessory of the Victorian age. Furry, friendly and about the size of a house cat, European women clamored to have a red panda by their side.
As far as biologists know, red pandas only exist today in the region around the Himalayas. However, a red panda tooth, estimated to be around 4 to 7 million years old, was recently found in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Tennessee.
Steve Wallace, the curator for the East Tennessee Natural History Museum located in Gray, Tenn., said he and his team have unearthed evidence of giant turtles, saber-toothed cats and pot-bellied rhinos at the Gray Fossil site, but were not expecting to dig up an ancient red panda tooth.
Since it was discovered, red panda bones have become common at the site. Wallace said the ancient Tennessee “firefox” was probably much larger, about the size of a mountain lion, and thrived in the thick forests once found in that part of the world.
One theory about what caused the red pandas to disappear from the Blue Ridge Mountains is that raccoons moved in and began competing for the same food. While scientists do not yet fully understand why evidence of this animal surfaced in the southern United States, they are hoping their discoveries can help bring the red panda back from the brink.
“Understanding why fossil red pandas were so much more successful, so much more widespread, than pandas today, could be a very beneficial to actually protecting them and ensuring that they’ll be here for future generations,” Wallace said.