Disney and Pixar’s latest film, Turning Red, is about a 13-year-old girl discovering a mystical side effect of puberty. Whenever Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang) gets emotional, she transforms into an 8-foot-tall, fluffy, stinky red panda. The movie’s tagline: “Growing up is a beast.”
Turning Red is the most recent example of popular culture featuring a red panda, a creature once described by French zoologist Frédéric Cuvier as “quite the most handsome mammal in existence.” But rising habitat loss and climate change threaten the lives of these adorable endangered animals. The global population is estimated to be as few as 2,500 in the wild. While zoos help raise awareness of conservation efforts, captive breeding programs for red panda cubs have struggled with historically low survival rates.
If you haven’t seen Turning Red yet (it’s streaming on Disney+), the animated movie is a coming-of-age story set in the city of Toronto in 2002. Mei is an ambitious, Chinese-Canadian teen struggling to figure out her relationship with her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), while also developing her own interests. Mei cares deeply about honoring her family’s wishes—while also longing to spend more time with her friends and obsess over the boy band 4*Town. But her mother’s love, concern, and aspirations frequently cause public embarrassment and awkward moments for Mei.
One morning, Mei is horrified to discover she is now a giant red panda with a long, poofy tail and pudgy, bear-like body covered in thick red and white fur. Her transformation is triggered by spikes in emotion like anger and excitement. Mei is initially embarrassed but quickly discovers her friends and classmates are thrilled with her new appearance. This acceptance helps Mei become more popular while creating other problems.
Turning Red is another example of the cultural popularity of red pandas, especially in animation. The 1995 German-French animated series on environmentalism, Die Bambus-Bären-Bande, featured a red panda named Bamboo-Lee. The central character of the Netflix Japanese animated series Aggretsuko is a red panda who channels her anger about her office job into death metal karaoke sessions. In the blockbuster Kung Fu Panda movie and television franchise, martial arts trainer Master Shifu is also a red panda.
In comparison to Mei, real red pandas are much smaller, weighing between 8 to 17 pounds. In addition to ruddy red fur and white markings on their faces, red pandas have dark fur on their limbs and stomach. They spend most of their time resting in trees. According to the Smithsonian, 95% of a red panda’s diet is bamboo leaf tips and shoots. They also eat fruit, acorns, roots, and eggs. They live far away from Toronto’s Chinatown in high-altitude forests in the eastern Himalayas, including in China, northern Myanmar, as well as the mountains of Nepal and Bhutan.
Like Mei and her mom, red panda mothers also have close relationships with their young, spending three months together hiding inside the nest after birth. The mothers will stay close to their offspring for roughly one year or until the next mating season. Unlike the highly sociable Mei, adult red pandas are mostly solitary creatures except during breeding season. And they’re facing more serious matters than Mei’s struggle to catch her favorite boy band.
Just like Mei, red pandas need to be given the right conditions to thrive in the wild—not just under the care and close observation of people who love them.
Turning Red is about the challenges of growing up, which real-world red pandas know all too well. It’s getting tougher for them to reach maturity due to multiple threats to their natural habitat. Research studies have shown low survival rates for red panda cubs. Mortality among wild cubs in Nepal was as high as 86% in 1987, according to a 1989 study from the University of Maine.
Human population growth is one of the biggest issues, along with deforestation and industrial development. According to the Red Panda Network, 70% of red panda habitat in Nepal lies outside of protected areas and has been fragmented into 400 small forest patches. Other threats include livestock grazing, forest fires, attacks from guard and feral dogs, infectious diseases, weak law enforcement, and inadequate public awareness.
Climate change is also a concern due to the fact that red pandas occupy habitat areas within a very narrow temperature range. As temperatures rise, the animals will need to move to higher elevations to adapt, a migration that will also be affected by the movement of growing human populations and animal herders. Data analysis published earlier this year also found higher environmental temperatures hurt the survival rate of red panda cubs born in Himalayan zoos.
The red pandas’ appearance makes them popular at many zoos, but baby red pandas have struggled in captive breeding programs. One study found 36% of captive cubs died in their first year. Data analysis of male and female red pandas between 2002 and 2018 found first-year mortality rates ranging between 28% and 34%. One-in-four red panda cubs born in zoos between 2002 and 2019 did not survive after 30 days. These programs may help increase wild populations, but only four red pandas have transitioned from captivity. A cub produced by one of them went missing from its nest after one month.
Animated movies like Turning Red can help raise public interest in lesser-known animals and conservation efforts. A research report found that Finding Dory, the sequel to Finding Nemo, helped increase Google searches for the scientific name of the blue tang, the exotic fish species Dory plays. Kung Fu Panda participated in conservation campaigns with the World Wild Fund for Nature, as well as with conservation organization WildAid, to advocate against animal poaching and the illegal trade of animal parts. And on March 11, Disney announced it would be helping support community-based conservation efforts in Nepal through a grant from its Disney Conservation Fund to the Red Panda Network in honor of Turning Red.
One of the largest focus areas for red panda conservation efforts is reducing wood collection from their habitat areas. Governments can invest in alternative energy sources and fuel-efficient stoves so that local community members aren’t forced to cut down so many trees. In China, environmental organizations and local government agencies are jointly providing subsidies and technical assistance for greater access to clean energy in rural areas of Yunnan province, which is inhabited by red pandas.
One long-term, community-based, integrated approach to conservation in Nepal combines research, education, and job programs to incentivize local forest stewardship. Through this program, local residents are employed as forest guardians and trained to sustainably manage and monitor the red panda’s habitat. Eco-tourism businesses around the animals help incentivize long-term environmental protection. Vaccination, sterilization, and proper domestication of dogs also helps reduce the threat to red pandas. Conservation recommendations in Bhutan include similar guidance on dogs, as well as increased local and public awareness about red panda conservation.
Turning Red reminds viewers that growing up is hard. It takes several years and requires the help of others. Conservation and habitat restoration are long-term efforts. Climate change won’t make the work any easier. But just like Mei, red pandas need to be given the right conditions to thrive in the wild—not just under the care and close observation of people who love them.