The Giant Panda lives in a few mountain ranges in central China, in Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces. It once lived in lowland areas, but farming, forest clearing, and other development now restrict the Giant Panda to the mountains.
The Giant Panda is an endangered species and highly threatened. According to the latest report, China has 239 Giant Pandas in captivity and another 27 living outside the country. It also estimated that around 1,590 pandas are currently living in the wild. However, a 2006 study, via DNA analysis, estimated that there might be as many as 2,000 to 3,000 Giant Pandas in the wild. Though reports show that the numbers of wild pandas are on the rise, the International Union for Conservation of Nature believes there is not enough certainty to remove the Giant Panda from the endangered animal list.
While the dragon has historically served as China's national emblem, in recent decades the Giant Panda has also served as an emblem for the country. Its image appears on a large number of modern Chinese commemorative silver, gold, and platinum coins. The species is a favorite of the public, at least in part because many people find that it has a baby-like cuteness. Also, it is usually depicted reclining peacefully eating bamboo, as opposed to hunting, which adds to its image of innocence. Though the Giant Panda is often assumed to be docile, it has been known to attack humans, presumably out of irritation rather than predatory behavior.
The Giant Panda has a black-and-white coat. Adults measure around 1.5 m long and around 75 cm tall, at the shoulder. Males are 10-20% larger than females. Males can weigh up to 115 kg (253 pounds). Females are generally smaller than males, and can occasionally weigh up to 100 kg (220 pounds). The Giant Panda lives in mountainous regions, such as Sichuan, Gansu, Shaanxi, and Tibet.
The Giant Panda has a body shape typical of bears. It has black fur on its ears, eye patches, muzzle, legs, and shoulders. The rest of the animal's coat is white. Although scientists do not know why these unusual bears are black and white, some speculate that the bold coloring provides effective camouflage into its shade-dappled snowy and rocky surroundings. The Giant Panda's thick, wooly coat keeps it warm in the cool forests of its habitat. The Giant Panda has large molar teeth and strong jaw muscles for crushing tough bamboo.
The Giant Panda has a paw, with a "thumb" and five fingers; the "thumb" is actually a modified sesamoid bone, which helps the Giant Panda to hold bamboo while eating. Stephen Jay Gould used this example in his book of essays concerned with evolution and biology, The Panda's Thumb.
The Giant Panda has the second longest tail in the bear family, with one that is 4-6 inches long. The longest belongs to the Sloth Bear.
The Giant Panda can usually live to be 20-30 years old in captivity.
Social encounters primarily occur during the brief breeding season in which pandas in proximity to one another will gather. After mating, the male leaves the female and the mother is alone to raise the cub.
Two of the panda's most distinctive features, its large size and its round face, are adaptations to its bamboo diet. Panda researcher Russell Ciochon observed that: “[m]uch like the vegetarian gorilla, the low body surface area to body volume [of the giant panda] is indicative of a lower metabolic rate. This lower metabolic rate and a more sedentary lifestyle allow the giant panda to subsist on nutrient poor resources such as bamboo.” Similarly, the Giant Panda's round face is the result of powerful jaw muscles, which attach from the top of the head to the jaw. Large molars crush and grind fibrous plant material.
Twenty-five species of bamboo are eaten by pandas in the wild, such as Fargesia dracocephala and Fargesia rufa. Only a few bamboo species are widespread at the high altitudes pandas now inhabit. Bamboo leaves contain the highest protein levels; stems have less.
Because of the synchronous flowering, death, and regeneration of all bamboo within a species, the Giant Panda must have at least two different species available in its range to avoid starvation. While primarily herbivorous, the Giant Panda still retains decidedly ursine teeth, and will eat meat, fish, and eggs when available. In captivity, zoos typically maintain the Giant Panda's bamboo diet, though some will provide specially formulated biscuits or other dietary supplements.
The Red Panda and the Giant Panda, although completely different in appearance, share several features. They both live in the same habitat, they both live on a similar bamboo diet, and they both share a unique enlarged bone called the pseudo thumb, which allows them to grip the bamboo shoots they eat.
Two subspecies of Giant Panda have been recognized on the basis of distinct cranial measurements, color patterns, and population genetics (Wan et al., 2005).
The Giant Panda was first made known to the West in 1869 by the French missionary Armand David, who received a skin from a hunter on March 11, 1869. The first westerner known to have seen a living Giant Panda is the German zoologist Hugo Weigold, who purchased a cub in 1916. Kermit and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. became the first foreigners to shoot a panda, on an expedition funded by the Field Museum of Natural History in the 1920s. In 1936, Ruth Harkness became the first Westerner to bring back a live Giant Panda, a cub named Su-Lin who went to live at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. These activities were halted in 1937 because of wars; for the next half of the century, the West knew little of pandas.
By 1984, however, pandas were no longer used as agents of diplomacy. Instead, China began to offer pandas to other nations only on 10-year loans. The standard loan terms include a fee of up to US$ 1,000,000 per year and a provision that any cubs born during the loan are the property of the People's Republic of China. Since 1998, due to a WWF lawsuit, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service only allows a U.S. zoo to import a panda if the zoo can ensure that China will channel more than half of its loan fee into conservation efforts for the Giant Panda and its habitat.
In May 2005, the People's Republic of China offered Taiwan (Republic of China) two pandas as a gift. This proposed gift was met by polarized opinions from Taiwan due to complications stemming from Cross-Strait relations. As of November 2007, Taiwan has not accepted the offer.
The Giant Panda has been a target for 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.
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, due to inexperience and insufficient knowledge of ecology. Many believed that 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 due to 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 the chances of survival for pandas. With these renewed efforts and improved conservation methods, wild pandas have started to increase in numbers in some areas, even though they still are classified as a rare species.
In 2006, scientists reported that the number of pandas living in the wild may have been underestimated at about 1,000. Previous population surveys had used conventional methods to estimate the size of the wild panda population, but using a new method that analyzes DNA from panda droppings, scientists believe that the wild panda population may be as large as 3,000. Although the species is still endangered, it is thought that the conservation efforts are working. As of 2006, there were 40 panda reserves in China, compared to just 13 reserves two decades ago.
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 7 natural reserves, were inscribed onto the World Heritage List in 2006.
Previously a problem to reproduction, pandas lose their interest in mating once in captivity. This has led some scientists to try extreme methods such as showing pandas videos of mating pandas and giving male pandas Viagra. The primary reproduction method had been artificial insemination. Only recently have researchers begun to have success with captive breeding programs and have determined that pandas have comparable breeding to some populations of the American Black Bear, a thriving bear family. The current reproductive rate is considered one young every two years.
Pandas reach sexual maturity between the ages of 4 and 8, and may be reproductive until age 20. The mating season takes place between March and May, when a female goes into her estrous cycle which lasts for 2 or 3 days and only occurs once a year. During this time, two to five males can compete for one female; the male with the highest rank gets the female. When mating, the female is in a crouching, head-down position as the male mounts her from behind. Copulation time is short, ranging from thirty seconds to five minutes, but the male may mount her repeatedly to ensure successful fertilization. The whole gestation period ranges from 95 to 160 days. Baby pandas weigh only 90 to 130 grams (3.2 to 4.6 ounces), which is about 1/900 of the mother's weight. Usually, the female panda gives birth to one or two panda cubs. Since baby pandas are born very small and helpless, they need the mother's undivided attention, so she is able to care for only one of her cubs. She usually abandons one of her cubs, and it dies soon after birth. At this time, scientists do not know how the female chooses which cub to raise, and this is a topic of ongoing research. The father has no part in helping raise the cub.
When the cub is first born, it is pink, furless, and blind. It nurses from its mother's breast 6 to 14 times a day for up to 30 minutes at a time. For three to four hours, the mother may leave the den to feed, which leaves the panda cub defenseless. One to two weeks after birth, the cub's skin turns gray where its hair will eventually become black. A slight pink color may appear on the panda's fur, as a result of a chemical reaction between the fur and its mother's saliva. A month after birth, the color pattern of the cub's fur is fully developed. A cub's fur is very soft and coarsens with age. The cub begins to crawl at 75 to 90 days; mothers play with their cubs by rolling and wrestling with them. The cubs are able to eat small quantities of bamboo after six months, though mother's milk remains the primary food source for most of the first year. Giant Panda cubs weigh 45 kg (99.2 pounds) at one year, and live with their mothers until they are 18 months to two years old. The interval between births in the wild is generally two years.
Since the earliest collection of Chinese writings, the Chinese language has given the bear 20 different names of which the ones in use today are, 大熊貓 (dà xióng māo), literally "large bear cat," or just 熊貓 (xióng māo), "bear cat." The name may have been inspired by the Giant Panda's eyes which have pupils that are cat-like vertical slits unlike other bear species with round pupils. Just as likely, the Red Panda's name was transferred to its larger cousin and labeled in texts as "large bear cat."
Colloquially, locals from different provinces use the previously more physiologically accurate names such as 花熊 (hua xiong) "spotted bear" and 竹熊 (zhu xiong) "bamboo bear." In Taiwan, the modern name for panda is 貓熊 (māo xióng) "cat bear," where cat is the adjective and bear is the noun. Since this is grammatically correct, there is currently no effort to reverse the characters.
Recently, NHNZ has featured pandas in two documentaries. Panda Nursery (2006) featured China’s Wolong Nature Reserve in the mountains in Sichuan Province; forty Giant Pandas and a dedicated team of staff play a crucial role in ensuring the survival of the species. As part of the Reserve’s panda breeding program, a revolutionary new method of rearing twin cubs called ‘swap-raising’ has been developed. Each cub is raised by both its natural mother and one of the Reserve’s veterinarians, Wei Rongping, to increase the chances of both cubs surviving. Growing Up: Giant Panda (2003) featured Chengdu Giant Panda Center in south-west China as one of the best in the world. Yet with female pandas' short fertility cycles and low birth rates, raising the captive panda population is an uphill battle.
The panda Chow-Ling made an appearance in the movie Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.