Giant panda

The panda, also known as the giant panda, is a bear native to south central China. 

It is easily recognized by the large, distinctive black patches around its eyes, over the ears, and across its round body. The panda’s diet is 99% bamboo. 

Pandas in the wild will occasionally eat other grasses, wild tubers, or even meat in the form of birds, rodents or carrion. In captivity, they may receive honey, eggs, fish, yams, shrub leaves, oranges, or bananas along with specially prepared food. 

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The giant panda lives in a few mountain ranges in central China, mainly in Sichuan province, but also in the Shanxi and Gansu provinces. As a result of farming, deforestation and other development, the panda has been driven out of the lowland areas where it once lived.

 

Description

The giant panda has a black-and-white coat. Adults measure around 1.2 to 1.8 m long, including a tail of about 13 cm, and 60 to 90 cm tall at the shoulder. Males can weigh up to 160 kg. Females (generally 10–20% smaller than males) can weigh as little as 75 kg, but can also weigh up to 125 kg. Average adult weight is 100 to 115 kg. 

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The giant panda has a body shape typical of bears. It has black fur on its ears, eye patches, muzzle, legs, arms and shoulders. The rest of the animal’s coat is white. Speculation suggests that the bold coloring provides effective camouflage in their shade-dappled snowy and rocky habitat. 

The giant panda’s thick, wooly coat keeps it warm in the cool forests of its habitat.  The giant panda’s tail, measuring 10 to 15 cm, is the second-longest in the bear family. (The longest belongs to the sloth bear.) 

The giant panda typically lives around 20 years in the wild and up to 30 years in captivity.  The oldest captive, a female named Ming Ming, had a recorded age of 34. 

Behavior

In the wild, the giant panda is a terrestrial animal and primarily spends its life roaming and feeding in the bamboo forests of the Qinling Mountains and in the hilly Sichuan Province. 

Giant pandas are generally solitary, and each adult has a defined territory, and a female is not tolerant of other females in her range.

Pandas communicate through vocalization and scent marking such as clawing trees or spraying urine. They are able to climb and take shelter in hollow trees or rock crevices, but do not establish permanent dens.

For this reason, pandas do not hibernate, which is similar to other subtropical mammals, and will instead move to elevations with warmer temperatures. Pandas rely primarily on spatial memory rather than visual memory. 

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Social encounters occur primarily during the brief breeding season in which pandas in proximity to one another will gather.  After mating, the male leaves the female alone to raise the cub. 

 

Diet

 
Photo: Pandas eating bamboo
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Photo: Panda eating, standing, playing

Despite its taxonomic classification as a carnivoran, the giant panda’s diet is primarily herbivorous, consisting almost exclusively of bamboo. 

Pandas are born with sterile intestines, and require bacteria obtained from their mothers feces to digest vegetation.   However, the giant panda still has the digestive system of a carnivore, as well as carnivore-specific genes,  and thus derives little energy and little protein from consumption of bamboo.

The average giant panda eats as much as 9 to 14 kg (20 to 30 lb) of bamboo shoots a day. Given this large diet, the giant panda can defecate up to 40 times a day.  The giant panda tends to limit its social interactions and avoids steeply sloping terrain to limit its energy expenditures. 

Conservation

The giant panda is an endangered species, threatened by continued habitat loss and by a very low birthrate, both in the wild and in captivity. 

Its range is currently confined to a small portion on the western edge of its historical range, which stretched through southern and eastern China, northern Myanmar, and northern Vietnam. 

Panda cubs eat apples at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu

The giant panda has been a target of poaching by locals since ancient times and by foreigners since it was introduced to the West.

Starting in the 1930s, foreigners were unable to poach giant pandas in China because of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War, but pandas remained a source of soft furs for the locals.

The population boom in China after 1949 created stress on the pandas’ habitat, and the subsequent famines led to the increased hunting of wildlife, including pandas.

During the Cultural Revolution, all studies and conservation activities on the pandas were stopped. After the Chinese economic reform, demand for panda skins from Hong Kong and Japan led to illegal poaching for the black market, acts generally ignored by the local officials at the time.

Photo: Close up of a baby seven-month-old panda cub in the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan, China

Though the Wolong National Nature Reserve was set up by the PRC government in 1958 to save the declining panda population, few advances in the conservation of pandas were made, owing to inexperience and insufficient knowledge of ecology.

Many believed the best way to save the pandas was to cage them. As a result, pandas were caged at any sign of decline, and suffered from terrible conditions. Because of pollution and destruction of their natural habitat, along with segregation caused by caging, reproduction of wild pandas was severely limited.

In the 1990s, however, several laws (including gun control and the removal of resident humans from the reserves) helped their chances of survival. With these renewed efforts and improved conservation methods, wild pandas have started to increase in numbers in some areas, though they still are classified as a rare species.

The giant panda is among the world’s most adored and protected rare animals, and is one of the few in the world whose natural inhabitant status was able to gain a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.

The Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries, located in the southwest Sichuan province and covering seven natural reserves, were inscribed onto the World Heritage List in 2006. 

Save the Pandas, YOU can make a difference!

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Reduce demand for illegal wildlife parts and products by encouraging others to ask questions and get the facts before buying any wildlife or plant product.

Push governments to protect threatened animal populations by increasing law enforcement, imposing strict deterrents, reducing demand for endangered species products.

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