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Red pandas (or lesser pandas) have long, fluffy striped tails like a raccoon, and faces and diets that resemble a giant panda's, but they clean themselves like a cat.
They are an anomaly among animals — not raccoons, bears (like giant pandas), or cats — they are the only living species in an animal family of their own (Ailuridae).
Red pandas look like a big domestic cats in shape. The main color of their fur is reddish-brown with white patches on the face. They have a long, thick reddish-brown tails with six yellow rings.
Adult red pandas have bodies up to 64 cm (25 in) long. Their tails range widely in length: 28–59 cm (11–23 in). Males weigh up to 6.2 kg (13.7 lb), females only slightly less.
Red pandas are nocturnal animals, spending their days sleeping in trees and foraging for food at night. After waking up, they clean their reddish-brown fur just like a cat, licking their paws and rubbing parts of their body. After his evening bath, a male marks his territory.
Red pandas are found in the southern Himalayan foothills, from India, Nepal, and Bhutan to China and as far south as Myanmar. In China, they live mainly in the southwestern provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, as well as Tibet. The red panda has been found as far east as Shaanxi Province.
Though not native to North America, fossil remains have even been found in Tennessee.
Red pandas thrive in moderate climates and like woodsy, mountainous locations where temperatures rarely go above 25°C (77°F). Red pandas prefer altitudes between 2,000 and 4,000 meters (7,000–13,000 feet).
Though not related to the giant panda, red pandas also eat a lot of bamboo (about 2/3 of their diet), because their digestive systems cannot absorb much nutrition from bamboo. Red pandas also eat small mammals, grubs, fruits, eggs, tender grasses, flowers, and insects.
Red pandas are not as abundant as they used to be. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) has red-listed them as being endangered as the number of red pandas in the wild is decreasing.
The IUCN estimates there are only about 10,000 red pandas left in the wild, but because red pandas are only active at night, it is difficult to get a firm count.
A major reason for the decreasing red panda population is loss of habitat due to people moving into their living areas. The ever-growing human population means a decrease in living space for the red pandas. Poaching and hunting also threaten red pandas in China and Myanmar.
When you see pictures of the red panda, you will find it looks like a raccoon or a raccoon dog. The simplest way to distinguish them is their black legs.
Raccoon dogs are light brown and have black rims to their eyes, but no ringed tail or black legs. They are of the dog family, most closely related to foxes.
Raccoons have black eye rims and ringed tails, and can even have reddish fur, but not as reddish-brown as red pandas'. They don't have black legs. They are of the same superfamily as the red panda, but a different family.
Red pandas have black legs and eye patches like giant pandas, but otherwise look quite different.
Since they share the name "panda", many think red pandas belong to the same animal family as giant pandas. In fact, the two pandas only share a suborder (along with the seal family!). Red pandas share a superfamily with skunks, raccoons, and weasels, while giant pandas belong to the bear family.
Though giant pandas and red pandas belong to different animal families, they do share some common points.
First, they are both herbivorous carnivores (plant-eating meat-eaters). Red pandas and giant pandas both have a carnivore’s digestive system, but both have adapted to eating plants, in particular bamboo. They mainly eat bamboo leaves and shoots when in season. And they are also crazy about fruits.
Secondly, red pandas and giant pandas share the same habitat preference: woodsy and mountainous locations in high altitude where the temperature rarely exceeds 25°C (77°F). So both live in southern central China, though red pandas also live around the Himalayas in other countries.
As red pandas and giant pandas are not in the same animal family, their appearances are quite different. Giant pandas’ are quite obviously black and white bears (though some are brown and white), with their much larger size, while people can hardly tell the difference between red pandas and some reddish-brown raccoons.
Red pandas reproduce faster, mating in late winter (January to March) and giving birth to 2–4 cubs every June/July, which take 2 years to mature. Giant pandas mate from March to May every two years or more, and give birth to 1–2 cubs around August (though usually only one cub survives), which mature in 4 years.
You and your children can help care for and raise the pandas and increase the panda population: See How to Volunteer with Giant Pandas in Chengdu. These half-day or day panda care activities are memorable experiences for children.
Our The Wolong Red Panda Keeper Program allows you to feed a group of cat-sized red pandas without a fence in between you. Of course you can watch and help pandas too.