“I’m trying to bring benefit to local communities from having Red Pandas”

“Red Panda Lady” is what Dr. Angela Glatston calls herself on Twitter. The name couldn’t be more appropriate. The former Conservation Coordinator at the Rotterdam Zoo launched the Red Panda EEP and the Red Panda Global Species Management Plan, among other projects.

Dr. Angela Glatston with the first edition of her book Red Panda – Biology and Conservation of the First Panda. The second updated edition was published in October 2021. Photo: Rob Doolaard

Dr. Glatston also published the book Red Panda – Biology and Conservation of the First Panda a decade ago, which is now considered a standard work. The second updated edition was published in October 2021. In an interview with Red Pandazine, Dr. Glatston explains why climate change and genetic analysis have now a greater role in the book, and how she feels about “Turning Red” and the increasingly popular animal encounters in zoos.

With Bettina Menzel

Red Pandazine: What are the most exciting news for you compared to the first edition of your Red Panda book?

Angela Glatston: Firstly, there are now reports from Myanmar and Bhutan, which were not available in the first edition. There is an interesting paper on bamboo and how that affects the distribution of Red Pandas, and also a couple of chapters that are focusing on the effects of climate. One is looking particularly at climate change over the next 20, 30 years, and what impact that will have on the Red Panda habitat areas. And the other one is a study based on Red Pandas in zoos which is looking at the effects of climate change on reproduction.

Furthermore, we got several chapters about genetics – the book also deals with the question of whether there are one or two different species of Red Panda. One of my chapters discusses whether zoo data show any differences between Himalayan and Styan’s Red Pandas. It seems that there may be differences in their life history parameters but, as we have always considered them to be subspecies, we  didn’t try to tear them apart.

What kind of differences are you referring to?

Glatston: Body weight is one, longevity is another. There is also a difference in their breeding success in zoos. A clear differentiation is difficult, as the breeding is also influenced by breeding programs and by how long animals are kept together. It could be that Styan’s Red Pandas can breed at a later age, but we don’t know because most of them are automatically separated or stopped from breeding about the age of 12. There’s also a possibility that the Styan’s Red Panda show a little sexual dimorphism.

The discovery of the two different Red Panda species was made possible by genetic analysis. You mentioned in the foreword of your book that the second edition will include much more about genetics. Would you say scientists nowadays are more interested in studying the genetics of Red Pandas than ten years ago?

Glatston: Yes, much more. It started with Chinese researchers doing the first paper, and now there’s also a group of scientists in India looking into the Red Pandas in the eastern part of Arunachal Pradesh.

What are the reasons for the increased interest of scientists? Do the lower costs of genetic analysis play an important role?

Glatston: I think the techniques have improved a lot over the last 10 years. A lot of research is done in China. It seems that they were able to show that Styan’s Red Panda, which is also called the Chinese Red Panda, is found in the eastern part of Arunachal Pradesh in north-eastern India.

turning red photo: disney/pixar
“I think Turning Red doesn’t show a Red Panda, it’s just a character with a Red Panda shape”, says Dr. Glatston. Photo: © 2021 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Besides the biological topics, there’s also a chapter about the cultural relevance of the Red Panda in your book. In March 2022 Pixar’s Turning Red will be released in cinemas worldwide – a major production with a Red Panda as main character. Are you happy to see a Red Panda as the main character in a blockbuster, or do you see problems related to that? Could people have the impression that Red Pandas are pets?

Glatston: That’s one of my concerns, yes. But what worries me more is social media, where there are the many photographs of Red Panda encounters, showing Red Pandas interacting with people.

Don’t you think “Turning Red” could be the “Lion King” or “Finding Nemo” moment for Red Pandas?

Glatston: I don’t think so because you know when you see Finding Nemo or Lion King, the characters are anthropomorphized but are still lions or clown fish living in their natural habitats. The Red Panda in Turning Red is not like this, as far as I can tell, it walks on two legs and apart from the shape has very little in common with a Red Panda. I haven’t seen the movie, but this is the impression it gives me. I think Turning Red doesn’t show a Red Panda, it’s just a character with a Red Panda shape. Aggretsuko is similar in many ways but to me seems more fun.

You mentioned the dangers of animal encounters. One of Red Pandazine’s most popular articles is about this topic. Interestingly, these encounters are more popular in the English-speaking world than in Europe. Are close encounters with humans okay for Red Pandas, or is it something that should be restricted?

Glatston: The animal encounters started – like most of these things – in the United States, and, as with similar trends, was then adopted in the UK and Australia and is now being introduced into mainland Europe. We also touch on this topic in the book. Some people say these encounters are educational, but we haven’t really measured their educational impact. People who choose to go such events may be more aware of  Red Pandas anyway. We need to look at the impact of these activities on Red Panda welfare, but this also depends on the type of encounter. If the visitors are kept  at a distance, it is a very different experience for the animals than a close encounter where they are stroked by or climb over the visitors.

I’ve seen what you are describing in photos from zoos, that show Red Pandas sitting on the visitors. Occasionally, they could even feed the Red Pandas.

Glatston: I have a problem with that. This is exactly the reason why we have initiated a study on the impact of these encounters. I hope it will come up with some good information on this because there isn’t any available yet. Does it affect breeding? Does it impact if these Red Pandas or their offspring can be reintroduced into the wild? If you have animals less afraid of humans, maybe it’s not the best idea to release their offspring back into the wild. It’s difficult to ban such events, but some stricter rules would be good. If the study suggests a negative impact, we could try to persuade visitors not to participate, this may be the best approach as they clearly care about Red Pandas. I do expect a negative outcome, but clearly I could be wrong. Maybe we’ll find that the Red Pandas are happy and enjoy encounters with the public.

There are many questions about the behavior of Red Pandas. Photo: DarkMarkCZ – Pixabay

Let’s get back to the biology of the Red Panda. I personally found the “unsolved mysteries” in your book very exciting, for example, the fluids Red Pandas secrete through their paws – and nobody knows why. Are there more riddles like this waiting for the researchers to solve?

Glatston: A lot of the current studies on Red Pandas are related to their conservation and environment and do not investigate their behavior. There has been some behavior study in the past in zoos, but there isn’t really any research on this in the wild. We haven’t made much progress in this area. We just assume that Red Pandas are solitary, but of course, they’re not totally solitary. Very few animals are. There are many questions about their behavior. The current state of research doesn’t even agree on their activity patterns; are they active at dusk and dawn, are they nocturnal, or does activity vary over the year. Does Styan’s Red Panda have different activity patterns to the Himalayan Red Panda.

It seems that the Red Panda is an extraordinarily difficult animal to research.

Glatston: That is true, but with camera traps and satellite tracking, we have a lot more options. Still, a lot of what we know about Red Pandas is based on information from zoos.

Some years ago, Red Pandazine had an interview with Dr. Gebauer, who said that Red Pandas are one of the most difficult animals to film. In his documentary, he also used footage filmed in the zoo, as it was impossible to film all the scenes in the wild. Is that the “problem” of the Red Panda – having such a “hidden” elusive life?

Glatston: We also said this about snow leopards, but now there is some beautiful footage of these animals. So, it should also be possible with Red Pandas, but you must have a lot of time. And with radio collars, you get more of an idea of their movements. Therefore, you could go to areas where you know they’re more likely to going to be – and set up your camera there. I think it’s getting more feasible.

Some months ago, I’ve read a paper about the diversity of the genetic pool of the Red Pandas. It was very pessimistic: According to the paper, the diversity is shrinking, and Red Pandas will be extinct in 100 years. I don’t know how precise this prediction can be, but what’s your opinion?

Glatston: That’s a difficult question. I know those papers from China, they were saying that the diversity in the Chinese group is much greater than in the Himalayan Red Pandas. In zoos, the variety is greater – but we don’t know how different it is from the wild. The animals mostly stem back to the founders, who were caught at the end of the 19th century or in the 1970s. Whether they may have some different genetic variants, it’s difficult to know. They may just be different representatives of the same thing. It’s not a huge problem unless there’s a big change in the environment like climate change. That might be when they suffer more.

“Climate change will likely force people and their dogs into closer proximity to Red Pandas.”

— Dr. Angela Glatston

So, the climate change and deforestation are the biggest threats for Red Pandas?

Glatston: Yes, and hunting. We did a simulation of some of these small Red Panda groups in forests in Nepal. You may have about 30 animals if you’re lucky, maybe 50, and they’re looking at some of those. If you lose one or two animals, you know your prospects decline very quickly in these small groups. And I see this fragmentation combined with poaching as a big problem.

How big is the impact of poaching on the Red Panda population? Is this the major problem for Red Pandas?

Glatston: It’s difficult to say because there isn’t enough data. And we’re not very sure of where the coats end up.

According to reports, they mostly go to China.

Glatston: There is a theory, that they mostly go to China. It is unclear, what the Chinese are using them for it.

Three rescued Red Pandas on the way to Luang Prabang Wildlife Sanctuary, January 2018. Photo: Free the Bears

There also seems to be a market for living animals, like in Laos, where the animal rights organization “Free the Bears” rescued six Red Pandas, but three of them died of exhaustion.

Glatston: People have investigated this, but they have not found very much. One contact in China says that there are markets, but it’s very difficult to uncover. Probably a bigger problem for Red Pandas are the dogs and the illness canine distemper. Climate change will likely force people and their dogs into closer proximity to Red Pandas.

Aren’t there vaccines against canine distemper available for the Red Pandas?

Glatston: There are different thoughts about whether it is ethical to vaccinate wild animals but, more importantly, all commercial canine distemper vaccines used on dogs are lethal to Red Pandas. However, a good alternative would be to vaccinate all the dogs living in Red Panda habitat.

In a nutshell: Red Pandas have a lot of problems.

Glatston: Yes. And they are quite complex because of the whole biology and the slow rate of reproduction.

However, there are also positive news about Red Pandas like the press release of the Red Panda Network about the growing population in eastern Nepal, right?

Glatston: Yes, but it’s a quite subjective impression. There aren’t many Red Pandas. But I do keep making people more aware. I’m trying to bring some benefit to local communities from having Red Pandas. I do think that is an important way to work with people in these poor countries. I think it is working, and I certainly don’t think it’s getting worse. And there may be a slight increase in numbers, which is good.

I know it’s difficult to say, but what do you think – do Red Pandas have a chance to survive the next 50 or even 100 years?

Glatston: In the wild, it depends on the climate. It also depends on economic support for people because climate change is going to stretch their economy as well. If it doesn’t get too hot in Europe and North America, I think the zoo population is on a good way, so that as a reserve population will certainly be there for 100 years.

Read more

Red Panda
Biology and Conservation of the First Panda

2nd edition

Published October 27, 2021
Academic Press/Elsevier
608 pp.