Everyone knows the panda, right? It''s that wonderfully cuddly black and white creature that''s also the World Wildlife Fund''s emblem and the poster animal for threatened species worldwide. But there''s another panda, the red panda, and it is also threatened and classified by wildlife conservation foundations as a ''vulnerable'' spe cies. Yet most of us outside of wildlife conservation groups have never heard of this species, also known as the firefox.
The naming of Mozilla’s Firefox internet browser, sadly, was not inspired by this creature. They only came up with it because of copyright problems with the software’s earlier names, Phoenix and Firebird. You may also have encountered the red panda if you’ve seen ‘Kung Fu Panda’, where a firefox character is voiced by Dustin Hoffman. Though just as appealing as the giant panda, it simply doesn’t enjoy the same high public profile and awareness.
The red panda is native to the Himalayas and parts of China. It’s one of those animals, like the cheetah and the aardvark, which has a genus and species all to itself: Ailurus fulgens (fulgens means ‘shining’). It was previously classified by zoologists as a member of the raccoon family or the bear family, and as its name suggests, it also resembles a fox. Population estimates have been complicated by the fact that it also gets confused with the civet cat.
The firefox looks a bit like all sorts of other animals, but ironically not at all like the panda we all know and love. In fact, it isn’t closely related to it, though they may have had a common ancestor millions of years ago in the Tertiary period. Though the red panda isn’t quite as endangered as the giant panda, it faces the same risks to its existence as other marvellous mammals worldwide: habitat loss and poaching for its glorious russet-red fur and bushy, striped tail that is traditionally sought after for hats.
Red pandas are small animals, about 2 feet long not including the tail, and because they are not much bigger than a cat they have reportedly been kept as pets in warm climates. They live for around ten years or more under ideal circumstances in their native temperate forests, where they are adapted to foraging in the trees. Its short front legs give it a distinctive waddling walk.
The firefox does have one thing on common with its more famous namesake: it eats bamboo, although it’s omnivorous and will eat small mammals and birds, as well as eggs, flowers and berries. One extraordinary fact about the red panda is that it’s the only known non-primate that can taste the artificial sweetener aspartame.
As is so often the case in wildlife conservation, the biggest threat to the red panda is us. Encroachment by livestock farming has been a key threat, but it is a protected species and breeding programmes in captivity have been very successful. Over a hundred baby firefoxes have been born at the Knoxville, Tennesse Zoo alone. It may not be the most famous panda but the good news is that there are plenty of efforts to conserve it and ensure its future.