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A Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens) which I photographed at the Central Park Zoo

Today we present the lovable red panda (Ailurus fulgens), an endangered mammal which is the only species of the only genus of the family Ailuridae.  Weighing up to 15 pounds red pandas are shaped like cats—indeed their scientific name means “shining cats”—however they are not at all closely related to cats and their nearest cousins are in the superfamily Musteloidea (which includes raccoons, coatis, skunks, as well as mustelids like otters, weasels, and badgers).  These kinship bonds between the red panda and the other Musteloidea are not especially close:  the red panda is a living fossil and taxonomists are still arguing about where to put it.

During the Miocene era (approximately 20 million years ago to 5 million years ago), close relatives of the red panda spread around the temperate forests of earth. Remains of a very similar creature, Pristinailurus bristoli, were found in the magnificent Gray fossil site of Tennessee and fossils of other red panda like creatures have been found throughout Europe, Asia, and North America.  However, today the family consists of one last surviving species which is indigenous only to the high temperate forests of the Himalayan. The animal can be found in India (in Sikkim & Assam), Tibet, Bhutan, in the northern tip of Myanmar, and in southwestern China in the high forests of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Shaanxi. Unfortunately, throughout its range the red panda is endangered from hunting and habitat loss. They are hunted for their glorious red striped coats and bushy tails which help the creatures survive the cold and blend in with lichen-covered trees (but unfortunately attract our primate eyes).

Red pandas predominantly dine on bamboo, but they are omnivores who also consume small mammals, birds, eggs, blossoms, and berries.  In captivity they have been observed to eat the leaves, blossoms, and fruit of maples, beeches, and especially mulberries (perhaps this is what their extinct relatives in Europe and the New World ate).  They are solitary arboreal animals who carefully guard their forest territories and seek each others’ company only during mating season.

…although apparently they do fine together when they are eating pumpkins carved with their faces….

The red panda was not well known during the twentieth century, but because it flourishes in zoos it is becoming ever more famous among new generations of zoo-goers.  To reiterate, the animal flourishes in zoos even as it vanishes in the wild, so some day the red panda might be like that other magnificent orange Asian mammal, the tiger (which are now far more numerous in captivity than in the wild).  Thanks to their success in wildlife centers, red pandas are growing more popular in the media world: in the 2008 film “Kung Fu Panda” an animated red panda was featured as the venerable dojo master Shifu, voiced by Dustin Hoffman (who has admitted to knowing very little about the red panda before taking on the role).  Sikkim has adopted the animal as its official state animal and red pandas are also the mascots for the Darjeeling tea festival.  All of this matters in a ever more human-dominated planet where a species’ charisma to people is what is likely to keep it from going extinct.

Concept Drawings of Master Shifu, the Red Panda Sage from “Kung Fu Panda” by Dreamworks Studios

Speaking of charismatic red pandas, the world’s most famous (real) red panda is a male red panda named Babu who lives at Birmingham Nature Centre, in England. In 2005 Babu escaped into the suburban woods and, like Mia the cobra, attained media stardom before being recaptured. He was subsequently voted Brummie of the year (A Brummie apparently being a resident of Birmingham).  I have often watched Red Pandas at the Bronx, Central Park, and Prospect Park Zoos and I am surprised they do not have a similar designation in New York City.  No animal could be more designed to tickle human tastes or appeal more directly to the “cuteness” short circuit of our brain—at least until the red pandas smile and reveal that their jaws are filled with needle sharp teeth.

A Chinese Painting of a Red Panda (I can’t translate the name of the gifted artist) from auction.artxun.com

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