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Creating a new red panda habitat at Bristol Zoo Project

Posted on: 27 March, 2024

Before welcoming our new red panda Nilo, our expert teams came together to create a purpose-built habitat, tailor-made to the specific needs of our highly anticipated arrival.

Red pandas are native to the Himalayan Mountain range through Nepal, India and China, where they are under threat from habitat loss and poaching. Researchers believe their population has declined by 40% over the last 50 years, and it’s thought there are only 2,500 left in the wild.

Bristol Zoo Project is owned and run by conservation and education charity Bristol Zoological Society. As we build a new conservation zoo, our priority is to create habitats for our animals, here in Bristol, that reflect their homes in the wild, offering them ample opportunities to exhibit natural behaviour. So how did we do it?


Most of our plans for the new red panda habitat came from previous experience of caring for red pandas at Bristol Zoological Society, whilst also following the best practice guidelines for red panda living environments. The animal team compiled all the information, shared their knowledge, expertise, and ideas with the Facilities team, and from here the designs began to take shape.


Located near the Barefoot Trail at Bristol Zoo Project, the area was initially cleared of overgrown brambles to allow work to begin. The ground needed to be levelled to construct the habitat walls and ensure they were the correct height.

Considerable work was needed to remove rotting branches from the large cedar tree that now takes centre stage in the space, so it is safe for Nilo to climb. Trimming of other nearby trees also took place, to minimise any escape opportunities!

Finally, the area was raked to make sure there were no brambles left, creating a space that is much more pleasant for him to walk on.

Creating the environment

Red pandas are great climbers with semi retractable claws, as well as flexible ankles. They also have what’s often described as an extra thumb, which is an enlarged, modified wrist bone that they use to climb trees and grab bamboo stems. The cedar tree is ideal as it provides lots of climbing opportunities with a great view so that visitors can get a good glimpse of the animal.

Additional climbing structures have also been built by our in-house animal team, which will offer more enrichment for the red panda to enjoy.

Red pandas are crepuscular, which means they are most active at dawn and dusk. They often live alone, except during mating season or when they are raising young. Females are only fertile for a couple of days each year between January and mid-March, giving them a very short reproduction window.

New nest boxes have been built by our Maintenance team, with a section that allows ice blocks to be placed in the bottom to keep the pandas cool during the hotter periods of the year, if needed. The roof has also been insulated to keep the boxes as cool as possible. This purpose-built red panda habitat has suitable trees positioned throughout, which will provide shade during the warmer summer months.

Red pandas have a carnivore’s digestive system but have adapted to be largely herbivorous. Their diet mainly consists of bamboo, fruits, and blossoms, and they can eat around 20,000 bamboo leaves a day! Our teams have planted bamboo within the habitat and there are plans to plant carex grasses and seedlings for the red pandas to graze on.

Visitors will be happy to hear that a large area of path has been created to allow them plenty of space to observe and admire Nilo, as well as a larger space to gather and enjoy a daily animal talk from our resident experts. The path is framed by some smaller trees to create natural screening for the animal when visitors enter the area. Dead hedging, a form of fencing using small branches and twigs, has been put up between our Barefoot Trail and the red panda habitat, to offer the animals privacy and bring a sense of wilderness to the space.

Red pandas have long, thick fur to protect them from their rainy, mountainous habitat in the Himalayas and the reddish-brown colour helps them blend in among the red moss and white lichen-covered trees. This can also make them hard to spot. All of our animals have access to off-show areas, so we always recommend popping back a little later in your visit if you miss them initially.

The challenges

Red pandas are very skilful, acrobatic animals and are known to be rather good escape artists, so the team have taken a few extra steps to ensure our new arrival can’t climb out! The inside of the habitat has been kept as smooth as possible and we have included an inward bend of 45 degrees at the top of the fencing to create an overhang. We also attached a smoother finish to the circular posts holding the glass, to stop the animals from “hugging” their way up the posts and out! All of these slight adjustments to the space ensure they are kept safely within the habitat at all times.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

We always try to incorporate sustainability into all areas of our work and for this project we reused the glass from a previous habitat, rather than sourcing new materials, as well as repurposing items from around site.

Final note

Creating a new animal habitat that is indicative of their natural and complex environment in the wild is extremely important in ensuring the animal’s welfare is cared for. At Bristol Zoo Project we know that when they feel comfortable in their environment, animals display more behaviours like those living in the wild, which is what we want to study, research, and promote as part of our new conservation zoo.

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