Sightings of the red panda in the highlands have decreased in recent years

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. 

Highlanders of Merak and Sakteng used to see the extremely elusive red panda frequently a decade ago. 

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

Given the red colour of the animal, locals believe red pandas were the reincarnation of a monk and encountering the rare mammal was considered a good omen. 

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

The park officials installed 10 camera traps in Shetaymay and Chebaling areas, where red pandas were spotted occasionally. 

Officials said habitat fragmentation and degrading land due to overgrazing and other natural phenomena like landslides are some of the biggest threats to the endangered species. 

In order to review and discuss red panda research and conservation strategies in Bhutan, a three-day workshop on red panda conservation with the theme “Ensuring the future of red panda landscapes through national and regional collaboration” began in Trashigang yesterday. 

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 red panda habitation. “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 in forests without restraint, unaccompanied by herders.

Pema Dendup in one of his researches conducted on Red Pandas in 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 livestock grazing practice be minimised in protected 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 and mitigated, protected area coverage should not be considered an adequate measure of the conservation of red panda,” said Pema Dendup.  

Joanne Millar (PhD) with the Charles Sturt University in 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.”

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 over grazing,” she said.  

Joanne Millar said that at the end of the workshop, a draft national conservation action plan for red panda would be developed. “We can then discuss ways to link Bhutan to wider international conservation networks,” she said. “Designing projects and availing funds for red panda conservation activities could also be enhanced once the action plan is developed.”

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

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 panda in the country has not been conducted yet.  

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

The workshop is organised by Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary with financial support from WWF Bhutan.

Younten Tshedup | Trashigang