English News

  • youtube
  • facebook
  • twitter

Debunking Chinese theory, India says both Red Pandas co-exist in India

File photo of a red panda. Indian research finds that India is home to both species of pandas (Xinhua/Li Peng/IANS)

Mrityunjoy Kumar Jha

When it comes to India, China sees India as an economic, political and military competitor not just in South Asia but also in the international arena. Continuing the rivalry to the wildlife domain, Chinese scientists also claim that only China is home to endangered species of Chinese Red Panda (CRP) while the one in India is the Himalayan Red Panda (HRP). 

However, last week, Indian scientists of the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) debunked this claim. Contradicting Chinese claims, Indian scientists have found that India is home to both the Himalayan Red Panda and Chinese Red Panda.

Last year, scientists of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing claimed that two separate species went their own way after populations were divided by a river about 250,000 years ago. According to Chinese scientists, there are substantial divergences between the two species – CRPs and HRPs. In an analysis of three genetic markers from the DNA from 65 animals, they said: “Chinese Red pandas are found in northern Myanmar as well as south-eastern Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in China, while Himalayan Red pandas are native to Nepal, India, Bhutan and southern Tibet in China.” 

According to Chinese claims, the YaluZangbu River most likely marks the geographical boundary separating the two species, not the Nujiang river as previously believed. “Himalayan red pandas and Chinese red pandas were considered two subspecies, but this study has shown that they are two different species altogether.” According to researchers, attempts to classify the red panda as two subspecies or even two species based on differences in morphology—skull morphology, coat colour, and tail ring and biogeography—have been made in the past well. But they lacked genetic evidence.

The face of the CRP is redder whereas HRP’s is whiter. Likewise, the tail rings of the CRP are more distinct than those of the HRP, which has dark rings—darker red and the pale rings being more whitish, according to researchers.

However, such classification had remained controversial due to a lack of solid genetic evidence and the red panda’s inaccurate distribution boundary.

But Indian researchers say, both HRP and CRP are found in India. Their reports were published in Nature and the German Society of Mammalian Biology in the first week of January 2021. They claim that both coexist here in the Himalayan region in India. The research says that the Siang River in Arunachal Pradesh that flows downstream to YaluZangbu River is the potential barrier for species divergence in red panda after examining the DNA samples from India’s Himalayas.

Scientists from the ZSI have concluded that India is home to both the (sub) species—HRP (Ailurus fulgens) and the CRP (Ailurus styani).

“We successfully extracted DNA from 132 samples collected from west Bengal, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, scat processed and mined 44 sequences of CRP available on public domain,” states the report, “just lately, Hu (Chinese scientist), demonstrated the presence of two phylogenetic species, the Himalayan red panda (Ailurus fulgens) and Chinese red panda (Ailurus styani) and proposed that YaluZangbu river has been the potential boundary of species divergence. Their research sequenced 18 samples from Nepal, and inferred that it suffered from three historic bottlenecks but we didn’t observe a low genetic variation in the management area of DNA,” says the report authored by ZSI’s director Dr Kailash Chandra and his team. Indian scientists also discovered that DNA samples of Himalayan red pandas in Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh matched those of Chinese red pandas.

The red panda is a small, tree-dwelling mammal native to the high-altitude forests of India, Nepal and adjacent areas of China and Myanmar. In India, the animal is found in three states only: West Bengal’s Darjeeling district only, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. It is the state animal of Sikkim.

It has reddish-brown fur, a long, shaggy tail, and a waddling gait due to its shorter front legs; it is roughly the size of a domestic cat, though with a longer body. This original panda, formally described by biologists decades before the giant panda, lives almost entirely on bamboo, supplemented with fruits, mushrooms, eggs, the occasional bird and is the only non-primate that can taste the artificial sweetener aspartame. Solitary in the wild but playful in a well-tended captive environment, this brightly colored and beautiful animal is a charismatic ambassador for the varied and fascinating biospheres in the Himalayas. 

Experts estimate that around 14,000-15,000  individual red pandas remain worldwide and are listed as “endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened species. In India it is estimated at about 6,000 and in China about 7,000 individuals.  The main reasons for the population decline are habitat loss and degradation in all the countries. The animal is protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 in India, which means it is accorded the same protection as tigers. Adding to conservation efforts, scientists are doing the study of fine-scale landscape genetics of red pandas covering the eastern Himalayas and building a reference DNA database to help in the identification of confiscated cases, under an ongoing five-year project of the government of India’s Department of Science and Technology INSPIRE Faculty scheme.