This endangered species is one of the most well-known and well-loved in the world.
Species: Ailuropoda melanoleuca
IUCN Status: Vulnerable
Population trend: increasing
Habitat: Bamboo forests on steep mountain sides from 1600m to 3200m.
Distribution: Chiefly in Western Szechwan province of SW China.
Length: About 1.5m Weight: up to 120kg.
Life Span: Up to 20 years in captivity. Unknown in the wild.
Image: Panda (Giant) by Adrien Sifre
The giant panda was unknown to the western world until 1869, when it was discovered by a French missionary called Pere Armand David. For a while, it was known as Pere David's bear. A complex process of DNA testing has now shown that giant pandas are indeed bears, and not members of the raccoon family, as was thought until recently.
Giant pandas are extremely rare. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says there are just 1,864 pandas left in the wild. There are an additional 400 pandas in captivity, according to Pandas International. The hunting of pandas has been banned for many years, so this is not the problem. Destruction of its habitat, when areas are cleared for crop cultivation, is one of the main reasons for the panda's decline. Another reason is that the bamboo that makes up most of their diet, is dying back. The pandas find it difficult to migrate to new feeding areas because they find themselves hemmed in by human settlements. As the bamboo disappears, the pandas simply starve to death.
The giant panda is recognisable by its black eye patches and ears. It has a thickly furred white body with black limbs and a black band around its shoulders. The panda has small eyes and fairly poor vision.
Giant pandas have very strong jaws and the largest molar teeth of any mammal. They use these teeth to crush tough bamboo stems. They also have lengthened bones in their wrists, and the forepaws have an extra 'thumb' which enables them to grasp even small bamboo shoots with great precision.
Giant pandas are very good climbers, and use this skill to escape from predators. They are flat-footed and ungainly when on the ground, but are able to move almost silently and very quickly through networks of tunnels in the bamboo.
Photo: Chen Wu
Food and Feeding
Although they belong to the order “carnivora” the panda is primarily a herbivore, eating a diet made up mainly of bamboo leaves and shoots. Pandas will also eat berries, fruit, fungi, grasses, small mammals, birds, eggs and fish. Despite its diet being almost wholly bamboo, the panda still has the digestive system of a carnivore, so bamboo is a poor source of food, providing very little protein. Pandas have to eat up to 45kg of it every day, a process that takes them up to 16 hours. Feeding goes on day and night, with the pandas in a constant cycle of eating for eight hours and sleeping for four. Pandas also have to go to the toilet up to 40 times a day to get rid of all the excess waste!
As the panda's digestive system is poorly adapted to its diet of bamboo, they only digest the equivalent of one hour's worth of food every day. The rest of the nutrients are lost. Pandas are too slow to catch most live prey. Each species of bamboo flowers, dies and regenerates at the same time of year, so a panda has to have at least two different species available at any time, in order to be able to eat all year round. Although they can eat other foods, pandas appear to prefer to starve rather than change their diet when bamboo becomes scarce, so it could be said that they are contributing to their own destruction.
The giant panda lives alone for most of its life, only coming together with another of its species for long enough to mate. The panda’s diet leaves it with very little energy for moving or even for mating. Furthermore, female pandas are only fertile for two or three days a year, making it even more difficult for them to breed successfully.
A newborn panda cub is born hairless and blind, is about 15cm long and weighs only 100g, the smallest placental mammal of all in relation to the size of the adults. The cub will start to crawl after about 80 days and will stay with its mother for about 18 months, until it is able to establish its own territory. Pandas use a scent gland beneath their tails to mark their territories, using their tails as brushes.
Giant pandas give birth to twins in roughly half of their pregnancies but generally, only the strongest of the two cubs will survive in the wild. Since pandas store so little fat, the female is generally not able to produce enough milk to feed two cubs.
Photo: Erika Bauer/Smithsonian's National Zoo
Protecting the Giant Panda
A target for poachers since ancient times, due to its thick fur, the Giant Panda has been a species in decline for many decades. Its low birthrate and decreasing habitat have not helped matters. In 2006, population numbers in the wild were thought to be around 1000, though it has since been suggested that this number was underestimated. In 2016, the Giant Panda was reclassified from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’ suggesting that targeted breeding programs were working.
Chinese and American scientists are still studying giant pandas and their habits as part of a major conservation programme. A process to make bamboo flower early may well have a huge bearing on the panda's chances. Zoos around the world are participating in panda breeding programmes. There is still hope that with human help, the giant panda can survive in the wild.
Despite their popularity with the public and their use as the logo of the World Wildlife Fund, not everyone believes that the money spent on conserving the giant panda is worth it. Naturalist Chris Packham has argued that the breeding of pandas in captivity is "pointless" because "there is not enough habitat left to sustain them”.