Legends of the Panda
Quick Panda History
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165 - 353 pounds
Weight at birth:
Adult Body Length:
25 to 40 pounds of bamboo per day
18-20 years in the wild
30-35 years in captivity
Although they once roamed over a large portion of Asia, scientists currently estimate the population of the Giant Panda at only 1,600, making Giant Pandas a seriously endangered species. They are found living in the wild in a small area in Southwestern China along the Tibetan Plateau. There are approximately 300 in captivity in reserves, zoos and wild life parks. Four zoos in the US currently have pandas; San
Diego, Memphis, Atlanta and Washington
D.C. Giant Pandas are also found in zoos in Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, Mexico, France, Spain, Austria and Australia. Zoos outside of China must lease the animals from the Chinese government. This money is used for the preservation of the wild Giant Panda.
In China's Han dynasty (206 BC – 24 AD), the highly prized and gentle pandas graced the gardens of the emperors. Pandas were believed to have mystical powers.
In 1869, Pere Armand David, a French missionary and naturalist, was the first Westerner to describe a panda.
In 1972, when President Richard Nixon established relations with China, the panda gained attention in the United States. While visiting China, first lady Pat Nixon commented to her host that she loved the pandas. In response to this comment, the first panda was sent to the National Zoo in Washington, DC as a gift from China to Mrs. Nixon.
The panda is considered a "National Treasure" by the people of China
Referred to as a "living fossil," the Giant Panda is believed to have existed since the Pleistocene age, approximately 3 million years ago. After years of debate, scientists have determined through DNA testing that the Giant Panda is actually a member of the bear family. It was once thought they might be of the raccoon family. The scientific name of the Giant Panda is Ailuropoda Melanoleuca.
Giant Pandas are classified as carnivores; however their diet is closer to that of herbivores. A Carnivore is an animal that eats mostly meat. An herbivore is an animal that eats mostly plants.
The Giant Pandas' diet consists almost entirely of bamboo stalks, shoots and roots. They eat from 25 to 40 pounds per day. There are about 25 different types of bamboo.
When available, Giant Pandas will eat fish, flowers and small animals. In captivity they also receive milk, eggs, ground meat and specially formulated vitamin bread. Apples and carrots are a favorite treat.
Since the Giant Pandas' digestive system is not very efficient, they must consume large quantities of bamboo every day in order to obtain the nutrition they need. Cubs are especially prone to digestive problems.
Pandas eat for up to 14 hours a day. Their unique paws make it possible for them to hold the bamboo and bite the stalks. They generally eat in a sitting position but also like to snack lying on their backs.
The puffy cheeks that make the Giant Pandas appear so adorable are actually powerful muscles that enable the Giant Pandas to chew through even the toughest bamboo stalks.
Unlike other bears, the Giant Pandas do not store fat and therefore do not hibernate. Consequently, they are constantly in search of food.
One problem for wild Giant Pandas is that the bamboo species flowers and dies. It then takes several years for the bamboo to recover. In the past, Giant Pandas would migrate to other areas in search for new plants. Now, with their range fragmented, this is often difficult.
Giant Pandas drink water from the rivers and streams in their mountain environment.
Giant Pandas are known around the world for their unique black and white appearance. They resemble other bears in their shape, but have very distinctive markings. All Giant Pandas have black patches around their eyes and black ears on a white head. Their legs are black and there is a black band across their backs. Their mid sections are also white. It is very difficult to tell Giant Pandas apart since their markings are basically the same on all animals. Caretakers can identify individual Giant Pandas by small markings around their mouth or muzzle.
Giant Panda fur is coarse, dense and somewhat oily. Their thick fur acts as a coat to keep them warm in the cool moist climate of the mountain forests.
Unlike other bears, Giant Pandas are slow moving and seldom move faster than a walk. They appear clumsily in their movement.
The front paws of a Giant Panda are very different from other bears due to a special bone found in their wrists. Their sixth toe, an opposable thumb, is used for grasping bamboo. They use this bone in the same way humans use their thumbs, mainly for grasping food.
Giant Pandas leave scent marks in their territories. The scent marks serve as a major form of communication. Giant Pandas can determine from the scent if another Giant Panda is in the area, if the other Giant Panda is male or female, how recently they left their mark, and, in the case of females, if they are in a reproductive period.
To mark their location, Giant Pandas will back up to a tree and rub their scent glands on the tree, then use their tail to spread the scent. Some Giant Pandas, particularly males, will back up on the tree until they are virtually doing a handstand in order to place their scent higher on the trunk.
Latest research confirms adult Giant Pandas are much more "talkative" than we suspected and have the ability to make 11 distinct sounds. When guarding against predators or other Giant Pandas, they will huff, snort, chomp, or honk. If they're trying to defend themselves, they will moan, bark, or squeal. A growl or roar signifies the start of an argument or fight. During mating season they may emit a unique bleat or chirping sound. Cubs make a very loud squeaky cry.
Breeding maturity in the Giant Pandas is generally between four and eight years. Females breed only once a year in the spring. Giant Pandas tend to have a low reproductive rate, partly because the females only ovulate two out of three days a year. In the wild, Giant Pandas use scent and calls to locate a mate during the reproduction period.
Fragmentation of the Giant Pandas' habitat is a major impediment to breeding. When towns, roads, and power lines prevent the free movement from one area to another the male Giant Pandas cannot reach the females.
Giant Pandas nest on the ground or in hollow trees, giving birth approximately 100 to 150 days after they have mated. Hollow trees are becoming scarcer creating yet another problem for breeding.
Females give birth to one or two cubs. Triplets are extremely rare. If twins are born, usually only one survives in the wild. The mother will select the stronger of the cubs and the weaker will die. It is thought that the mother cannot produce enough milk for two cubs since she does not store fat.
Cubs will stay with their mothers for about two years. Therefore females only reproduce every other year or less.
Many zoos have tried to breed Giant Pandas but with limited success. The breeding centers in China use both natural mating and artificial insemination and have become much more successful in the past few years.
Like all bears, Giant Panda babies are called cubs. Newborn cubs weigh 4 to 8 ounces and are about 6 to 8 inches long, about the size of a stick of butter. They are born pink, with almost no hair, and blind. At about 1 week they begin to develop their distinctive black and white markings and at about 5 to 7 weeks, they start to open their eyes.
The mother holds the cub to her chest, much like a human mother. In size, compared to their mothers, panda cubs are some of the smallest newborns. Giant Panda cubs are especially vulnerable since the mothers don't use a den and hibernate as other bears do. In the wild, Giant Pandas nest in hollow tree trunks or caves. The newborns won't be able to even stand on their own for nearly 4 months. New mothers occasionally don't seem to know how to take care of their cubs. In captivity, they are then raised by caretakers using incubators in the nurseries at the Giant Panda Reserves or Zoos. At the Giant Panda Reserves, the caretakers in the nursery leave one cub with the mother for her to care for and place one in the nursery in an incubator. In the nursery, the staff will hand feed the cub and stay with it 24 hours a day, every day. After about a week, the cubs are exchanged or "swapped" so both cubs will bond with their mother and receive her care. The mother accepts both babies, but only one at a time. This process of exchanging the cubs, which was developed at the Wolong Panda Center, allows both of the cubs to survive in captivity. The Wolong Panda Center now has a 90% survival rate with captive born cubs, due in large part to this method used to raise twins.
At one year the cubs weigh between 70 to 80 pounds.
Older Giant pandas spend most of their time eating or sleeping. Younger ones like to play. They play with other Giant Pandas, running, chasing each other, climbing trees, and tumbling on the ground. Giant Pandas are truly "roly poly" creatures when they play.
In captivity they like "toys" which must be very sturdy and durable to stand up to their large teeth and powerful jaws.
They are well suited to their environment. They can swim in the mountain streams and enjoy the winter snow.
The Giant Panda was once widespread in southern and eastern China, Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma). Today the Giant Panda is limited to the mountains in a few Chinese provinces in southwestern China. Most of the Giant Pandas are in China's Sichuan Province, but they are also found in Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. Their range is along the eastern rim of the Tibetan Plateau.
Giant Pandas do not have a permanent den and do not hibernate. In the winter they will seek shelter in hollow trees.
The Giant Panda has lived for centuries in coniferous forests with dense undergrowth of bamboo at elevations of 5,000 to 11,000 feet. Rain or dense mist throughout the year shrouds these remote forests in heavy clouds. In the winter snow is common.
Today, these forests are under attack by dramatic increases in human population. Agriculture, ranching, logging, trapping, and human settlement dramatically threaten their habitat. Previously, they lived at lower elevations but farming and clearing of the forest have pushed them higher into the mountains.
The Giant Panda's primary food source, bamboo, is decreasing. Bamboo grows under the shade cover of the large fir trees. Logging and clearing the land for agricultural uses is a major factor in the reduction of bamboo.
The impact of rapid population growth has seen the destruction of significant Giant Panda habitat. In an effort to defend the Giant Panda, the Chinese government enforces a logging ban in the Giant Panda reserves.
The 8.0 earthquake of 2008 was in Sichuan Province, home to the Giant Pandas. The quake buried much of the Giant Pandas' bamboo under tons and tons of rock and mud.
In the 1940s, the Chinese government began conservation efforts to protect pandas. In 1963 the first panda reserve was established in southern China. Pandas were classified as an endangered species in the 1980s.
Today there are 40 Giant Panda reserves in China. These reserves need to be connected via corridors in order to reduce isolation and fragmentation of the Giant Panda population. Villages and human activities now block open ranges for migration. The fragmentation of Giant Panda areas is a major problem affecting mating.
Another problem related to the fragmentation of the Giant Panda areas is that the bamboo will flower and then die off about every 20 years. When this occurs the Giant Pandas need to migrate to a new area. There have been reports of Giant Pandas starving when they are unable to find bamboo in new areas.
The destruction of the Giant Pandas' natural habitat, the reduction in available bamboo forests and expanding human populations are the main threats to the Giant Panda.
The May 12th 2008 earthquake epicenter was just a few miles from the Wolong Panda Center. Aftershocks continued for days. In one 24 hour period 178 aftershocks were monitored in the quake zone. There were approximately 70,000 deaths from the quake, 20,000 missing and 375,000 injured. 1.4 million quake survivors were evacuated.
Five staff members of the Wolong Nature Reserve were killed. One Giant Panda, Mao Mao was killed by the collapse of the exterior wall in her enclosure.
Xiao Xiao escaped from his enclosure and is still listed as "missing." Another Giant Panda died following the earthquake when roads were blocked and he could not reach medical care.
Qing Qing was injured when her enclosure collapsed but was treated and is doing now doing well.
Wild Giant Pandas certainly died as a result of the earthquake but no estimates as to the number are available. Several Giant Pandas came down from the mountains in search of food. One wild Giant Panda has starved due to the destruction of the bamboo.
The consequences of the devastation to the bamboo as a result of the earthquake will continue for many years.
The earthquake dramatically increased the challenges for this already endangered species.
A study in 2004 by the Chinese Department of Forestry estimated the current population of the wild Giant Pandas at approximately 1,600. There are also about 300 Giant Pandas in captivity.
Giant Pandas are on the World Conservation Union's Red List of Threatened Animals. The U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) protects Giant Pandas, as well as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). While hunting and poaching have been reduced due to strict laws by the Chinese government, accidental capture of Giant Pandas in traps set for other animals still possess a serious problem. Low birth rates and difficulties with reproduction also limit the numbers.
The future of the Giant panda is interwoven with the Chinese people. New advances in environmentally responsible farming, high yield crops to reduce logging, and population control efforts will all help the Giant Pandas.
The Chinese Government has several projects for reforesting hillsides, protecting grasslands and nature reserves for the Giant Pandas. There are also plans to pay farmers to turn cropland back to forest and to establish commercial tree farms to replace logging. A replanting project to restore the bamboo damaged in the 2008 earthquake is currently underway in the Sichuan Province.
The outlook for the Giant Pandas is linked to aggressive conservation efforts as well as successful captive breeding. Biological diversity and sustainable habitats are essential.
Increasing human population in the Giant Panda's native region has resulted in a dramatic degradation of habitat and food supply. The biodiversity of the region is at significant risk.
This magnificent animal, a survivor of the ice age and centuries beyond, is now in grave danger of extinction. The survival of each living panda becomes crucial to the survival of the species; each animal, those in captivity and in the wild, must be attended to on a daily basis if they are sick or injured. Without proper medical equipment and medicine, Giant Pandas will die and each death brings us one step closer to a world without these unique creatures; one step closer to the destruction of yet another species and its ecosystem.
Sustaining the Giant Panda has reached a critical point. We must work to save the Giant Panda in order to allow the world the continuing benefit of one of its most extraordinary creatures.