Study highlights red panda’s role in Gross National Happiness

Published 20 October 2011

red-panda1The first thoroughgoing conservation study of the charismatic red panda in Bhutan indicates that the conservation of this threatened mammal and the well-being of the Himalayan Kingdom’s human population are inter-dependent.

The study, published this week, is the work of Sangay Dorji, an officer with the Wildlife Conservation Division of the Bhutanese Government’s Department of Forests & Park Services, who undertook the research as part of a Master’s degree program at the University of New England.

“Careful, sustainable management of Bhutan’s temperate forests is necessary if a balance is to be met between the socioeconomic needs of people and the conservation goals for red pandas,” say the authors of the paper – Sangay Dorji and his UNE supervisors Dr Karl Vernes and Dr Rajanathan Rajaratnam.

They explain that there is an “inadvertent conflict” between the needs of people and red pandas in Bhutan. The harvesting of native timber to build houses is a traditional practice that is still encouraged, they say, “and demand is increasing from a growing population with higher living standards”. “Sixty-five per cent of Bhutan’s households in rural areas exploit potential red panda habitat to meet their needs, in conjunction with an equal urban-based demand for timber and firewood.”

The harvesting of bamboo – the red pandas’ main food – for roofing, fencing, and other uses, and the intense grazing of bamboo by migratory herds of cattle, also constitute a serious threat to the species.

The paper, titled “Habitat correlates of the red panda in the temperate forests of Bhutan”, was published on the 19th of October in the high-impact online scientific journal PLoS ONE at

Over a two-year period, Sangay Dorji monitored more than 600 selected forest sites for evidence of red panda presence, and obtained additional information from interviews with more than 660 forest residents. He found that the mammals were “generally confined to cool broadleaf and conifer forests from 2,110 to 4,389 metres above sea level”. They also required a complex understorey, including a dense growth of bamboo for food and access to water.

Red pandas are confined to the eastern Himalayas. The paper points out that Bhutan’s temperate forests are in the middle of the red panda distribution range and are therefore crucial to the survival of the species. “The red panda has been proposed as a suitable indicator species for monitoring the integrity of the eastern Himalayan broadleaf and conifer eco-region,” the authors say. “Red pandas are charismatic mammals, making them an ideal flagship species for harnessing public support for prudent natural resource management.”

They conclude that such management would benefit people as well as red pandas, and would thus support Bhutan’s philosophy of “Gross National Happiness”.