Breathtaking, biodiverse and mountainous – the hill-topped forests of Nepal are home to one of the world’s most precious and endangered pandas, Ailurus fulgens, the red panda.

Red panda face several threats to their survival; deforestation, poaching and loss of habitat due to increasing human needs to name a few – but your zoo visits and donations help us to make a difference for red panda in the wild through our long and successful partnership with Red Panda Network. To date we’ve donated over $100,000 to support the work of their Forest Guardians who monitor red panda, maintain and restore their habitat, educate locals on the importance of red panda conservation and report poaching activity to local enforcement agencies. Their anti-poaching efforts alone have helped to decrease traps and snares in Eastern Nepal by 60% since 2015 – work we’re proud to support.

Over the years several Auckland Zoo staff have been to Nepal to learn more about this important work and earlier this month, carnivore keeper Kristin paid her own way there to visit our conservation partners and fulfill a lifelong dream of seeing red panda in the wild. This 12-day red panda eco-trip was created specifically for the zoo community and is one of three experiences Red Panda Network offer. 

Kristin has been using her skills to care for the Auckland Zoo red panda whānau for six years, and her work has only been made more exciting by the recent birth of a new soon-to-be-named cub. You may have seen her engaging you in a red panda keeper talk (11am every day of the week!), taking you behind the scenes for a red panda experience, filling you in on panda personalities for our social media takeovers or championing International Red Panda Day at the zoo – as you can see, Kristin is a panda advocate!

Upon touching down in Kathmandu, Kristin met with her tour group which consisted of keepers from Animals Asia, Utah Zoo and a vet from Zoo Knoxville, led by guide Sarah who was once a keeper at Auckland Zoo, before heading off to Choyatar on a domestic flight and bumpy jeep ride.

In the wild nearly every waking hour of a panda’s life is spent either searching for food or eating, as 95% of their diet is bamboo. Just like the giant panda, red pandas can’t digest the cellulose in bamboo which means they have to eat 20-30% of their body weight in bamboo shoots and leaves every day in order to survive – this means they spend most of their time high up in the forest canopy. This is where the skills of the Forest Guardians come in as they know just where to find red panda in these high altitudes.

At an elevation of 2,000 – 3,000 metres above sea level, visibility in the ranges can prove difficult. Each day heavy clouds roll in across the mountains that make seeing even 50 metres ahead of you a challenge – so just how do you find a red panda camouflaged at the top of a 20-30 metre group of trees? With a lot of skill, care, and patience!

You might be surprised to learn that it’s their beautiful red and black fur that makes red panda so hard to spot and keeps them safe from predators. The red fur on their backs is the same colour as the moss-covered trees in Nepal helping them to blend in, while the black on their stomach makes them difficult to find when looking up.  

On day one of the trip Kristin and her fellow eco-travelers were lucky enough to spot two red panda cubs and over the proceeding days saw a total in  9 cubs and 1 adults – the most cubs reported on a eco-trip so far, which is a positive sign for breeding efforts in the region. When red panda cubs reach 4-5 months old their mothers are able to leave them for a few hours each day to go and fossick for food. While the group could see the cubs in some instances with no parent around, we know from experience that mum wouldn’t have been far off.

These eco-trips also allow for experiencing how Nepalese locals live, and during her time in Nepal Kristin was able to stay at different home stays (family homes) in these rural areas and got to eat their local cuisine – simple, healthy and delicious meals of rice, noodles and plenty of vegetables. High up in the mountains perishable food items are scarce as there are no fridges or freezers to keep them cold. Without easy access to supermarkets, these items are hard to come by which is why home-grown produce is a staple of their diet. Heading into the closest town of Ilam is a 2-3 hour jeep ride away and transport is often shared between families. 

The Forest Guardians not only protect red panda, but also their habitat. During their stay, Kristin and her tour group came across cows grazing inside the forest boundary – which is not ideal for the health of the forest. It is common for locals with livestock to go and collect browse for their cows so that they’re not disturbing the biodiversity in the area. As you can imagine though, this isn’t an easy task and it can require up to 50kg per household to feed their livestock each day. It’s important that the whole community understands why work like this is important – which involved education and dialogue between Forest Guardians and livestock owners. 

Forest degradation and fragmentation is another major threat to red panda populations, which is why Red Panda Network is working with local organisations and government agencies to restore and reforest areas. Kristin was able to visit a forest site that used to be a barren scrub-land but after successful planting of trees and vegetation, is now filled with regenerated Tenga trees (which are a favourite of red panda for the berries they produce) and bamboo among other species, creating a new forest corridor for red panda to travel through.  

Being able to see this conservation in action was a once in a lifetime experience for Kristin, and it will also help her to tell all of you about the wonderful work you’re supporting every time you visit the zoo or make a donation to Auckland Zoo’s Conservation Fund.  

Not only do we support Red Panda Network, and conservation programmes all around the world, we’re also part of an international breeding programme that works to increase the numbers of this endangered species. This is why we’re so pleased about the recent birth of Khela and Ramesh’s second cub and will fill you in on the details as we know more. Come and see our red panda parents this summer.