"We may be able to survive in a world where the Giant Panda, the California Condor and the Black Rhino exist only as pictures in a book.
But do we want to?"
- Jack Hanna, Zoo Director.
Giant pandas are among the rarest, yet most celebrated mammals in the world. Today, probably fewer than 1,000 are left in the wild. The giant panda is also known as the panda bear, bamboo bear and in Chinese "Daxiongmao" - the "large bear cat." It's scientific name, Ailuropoda melanoleuca , means "black and white cat-footed animal".
Giant pandas were formerly found throughout southern China and parts of what is now Myanmar (formerly Burma). Today, Giant Pandas are found only in the mountains of central China - in small isolated areas of the north and central portions of the Sichuan Province, in the mountains bordering the southernmost part of Gansu Province and in the Qinling Mountains of the Shaanzi Province. Giant pandas live in dense bamboo and coniferous forests at altitudes of 5,000 to 11,000 feet (1,500 to 3,400 m). The mountains are shrouded in heavy clouds with torrential rains or dense mist throughout the year.
Phylogenetic (evolutionary) Order:
Since the first Western account of a panda in the 1860s, scientists have debated whether giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) belong to the bear family, the raccoon family, or an altogether separate family. This is because the giant panda and its smaller cousin, the lesser or red panda (Ailurus fulgens), share many characteristics with both bears and raccoons.
Recent DNA analysis indicates that giant pandas are more closely related to bears and red pandas are more closely related to raccoons. As a result, giant pandas are now categorized in the bear family (Ursidae) while red pandas are categorized in the raccoon family (Procyonidae).
Giant pandas are bear-like in shape with striking black and white markings. The ears, eye patches, legs, and shoulder band are black; the rest of the body is whitish. They have a thick, woolly and slightly oily coat to insulate them from the cold and damp. Adults are 4 to 6 feet (1.2 to 1.8 m) long and may weigh 165 to 300 pounds (75 to 135 kg) - about the size of the American Black bear.
Although the panda is classified as a carnivore, it has evolved many features to aid in the consumption of bamboo - which makes up at least 95 percent of its diet. (The rest of their diet consists of bulbs, roots, eggs, fish and occasionally small rodents). Strong jaw muscles and large molars help the panda to crush the fibrous bamboo stalks. Thick linings of the throat and stomach reduce the danger from splinters. One of the most interesting adaptations is the panda's unique front paws. Unlike other bears, one of the wrist bones is enlarged and elongated and is used like an opposable thumb, enabling the giant panda to grasp stalks of bamboo.
Despite these adaptations for a bamboo diet, the panda's large intestine is short relative to most herbivores. Thus, pandas are very inefficient at digesting bamboo and must consume large quantities to survive. Pandas eat 20 to 40 pounds (9 to 18 kg) of food and spend 10 to 16 hours feeding daily.
The giant panda reaches breeding maturity between 4 and 10 years of age. Although mating usually takes place in the spring, the fertilized ovum actually separates from the uterine wall for several months (in a sort of suspended animation) before reattaching in mid-summer. Then, after an 8 week gestation, one or two tiny cubs weighing 3 to 5 ounces (90 to 140 g) each are born in a sheltered den. Usually only one cub survives.
Despite the small size of the cubs, the mother must leave them unattended and vulnerable to predators for several hours a day while she forages. The cubs' eyes open at 1 1/2 to 2 months and the cubs become mobile at approximately 3 months of age. The mother will usually drive off the cub at 12 months. While their average life span in the wild is about 15 years, giant pandas in captivity have been known to live into their 20s.
Although adult giant pandas have few natural enemies, their survival in the wild is in jeopardy. Habitat encroachment and destruction are the greatest threats to the continued existence of the giant panda. To address this situation, the Chinese government, with assistance from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), has set aside 12 nature reserves (and plans 13 more) where bamboo flourishes and giant pandas are known to live.
Unfortunately, the current isolation of these sanctuaries posses a great threat to the panda. Bamboo forests are prone to massive die-offs as part of their natural life cycle, and as occurred in the 1970s, future die-offs could cause the pandas to starve to death without access to distant forests. The low reproductive capacity of the giant panda makes it more vulnerable to these threats, and less capable of rebounding from its low numbers. The WWF is now working with the Chinese government to create additional reserves linked by "green corridors" to improve the panda's chances of survival.
Giant pandas are also susceptible to poaching, as their dense fur carries a high price in illegal markets in the Far East. The Chinese government has imposed life sentences for those convicted of poaching giant pandas.
In 1984, due to its dwindling numbers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the giant panda as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. This means it is considered in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. The giant panda is also protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty among more than 120 nations aimed at controlling illegal trade in endangered animal and plant species.
Today, more than 100 giant pandas are found in Chinese zoos, and several others are housed in North Korean zoos. Only about 15 giant pandas live in zoos outside of China and North Korea. In 1980, the first giant panda birth outside China occurred at the Mexico City Zoo.
Until recently, Washington, DC's National Zoo housed Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, perhaps the most well-known giant pandas in North America. A gift from the People's Republic of China to the people of the United States, they were presented as a gesture of amity and goodwill to President Richard Nixon when he visited China in 1972. Ling-Ling, at age 23, died in December 1992.
Note: Some information has been excerpted from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) with permission.