We have all seen the pictures and we think we know a lot about the Giant Panda or Panda…or do we really know the whole story? The panda has been seen in animated movies. Does one remember Kung Fu Panda”? However, the panda is far more complex than we think and has quite a history in modern and ancient times in China. The panda is a bear but far different than the “standard” brown and black bears. It is not all “black and white” in simple terms but yet the panda we will be discussing is indeed “black and white”. We will be “hiking” up a steep mountain, just as the panda does, to uncover the details of the panda’s geographic habitat, size and shape, diet, lifestyle, and the ways man is affecting, badly unfortunately, the survival of this beautiful and endangered species.
The panda as we have come to know it is actually better known as the Giant Panda. The cuddly looking animal has often been seen in captivity in zoos or on television when a new cub is born. At one time, pandas were found in China, North Vietnam and Myanmar (Putatunda 2012,4). Today, Giant Pandas are pictured on t-shirts, stamps and children’s plush toys (O’Connor 1992, 1). We will dig deeper into the history and life of the panda to get to know the panda up close and personal. I should say that apparently much of the information regarding pandas comes from studying them in captivity versus the wild.
The panda is a species of Chinese bear (Putatunda 2012,1) and its scientific name is Ailuropoda melanoleuca (trans. “black and white cat-foot”) (Zhang 2011, 1) and (Anonoymous B 2012,1 ). The panda’s classification is as follows (Anonymous E, 2012 1):
Common Name: Giant Panda
Scientific Name (genus and species): Ailuropoda melanoleuca
Domain: Eucarya (includes animals, fungi, protists, and plants)
Kingdom: Animalia (animals)
Phylum: Chordata (vertebrates–animals with backbones)
Class: Mammalia (mammals)
Order: Carnivora (bears, dogs, cats, etc.)
Family: Ursidae (bears)
Species: A. melanoleuca
In fact, the panda’s name in Chinese is ‘Da Xiong Mao’ or ‘giant bear cat’ (Putatunda 2012, 1). The reason for this is that the panda is physically different than other bears in that it has cat-like slits for pupils rather than the round pupils of other bears (Putatunda 2012, 1). Bears have been represented in Chinese art throughout the ages going back to almost 2000 B.C. (O’Connor 1992, 2). The bear was made of jade and showed it to be sitting with its paws raised. Some of the ancient Chinese works have tremendous detail. Folktales relate the strength of the panda holding up a mountain. Also, there is a tale of a young girl who wandered into the forest and became a friend of bears. The girl was killed by a leopard but the bears weeped and developed the eyes and unique black and white colors. However rare the images are of the panda in Chinese art history, the mountains and bamboo so associated with it are found very frequently in paintings and other works. Generally, the giant panda has not Been written about or found in Chinese art until very recently in the early 20th century and this has been stimulated mostly by the interest of Westerners (O’Connor 1992, 2 & 4). The modern use of the word
panda may be found in the language of Nepal with over 20 different names
having been used in Chinese writings (Anonymous B 2012, 14 & 15).
Pandas are not found everywhere on Earth, but just in six areas of bamboo forested mountainous land in the Sichuan Basin in western China. This ecoregion is the geographic and economic center of China (Anonymous C 2012, 7 At one time, they roamed over eastern China as well(Seidensticker 1992, 1
Pandas live high up in mountainous areas surrounded by deep valleys. They prefer this cool, misty environment because it is good for the growth of their food source, bamboo, which is of low nutritional value (Rhoden 2008,3 4 It is not unusual for them to live from 5,000 to 10,000 feet in altitude. The
environment is also inhabited by red pandas, golden monkeys, takin, and
other colorful plants and animals (Seidensticker 1992,2). These
animals are also under pressure of extinction as Chinese people
continue to destroy their mountain habitat (Kleiman 1992,4 ).
The giant panda is definitely a bear but it has a most unique coloring or actually absence of much color. Its mouth area as well as legs, shoulders, eyes and ears are black but the rest is snowy white. It has a short tail, rounded ears and a big head, although it is only about 4-6 feet tall when on its legs. They typically go over 200 pounds, but not much more than that (Putatunda 2012,2).
The panda has adapted well to its environment and its bamboo diet. They are born white and obtain their distinct color later (Anonymous D 2012, 4). Some scientists feel that the panda’s dramatic black and white acts as camouflage when they are in their dark rock and snow settings. There are two subspecies with the more typical black and white Sichuan variety versus the more limited dark brown/light brown type(Anonymous B 2012, 6 & 7). Their heavy and wool-like coats probably keep them warm in the high mountain coolness. They also have big molar teeth and jaw muscles for crushing up the fibrous bamboo (Anonymous A 2012, 2). Pandas sit upright while eating so that they can use their front paws to hold and manipulate the bamboo. Also, unlike other bears, they do not hibernate for long so they need to eat often to sustain themselves.
Although pandas evolved from a similar line of other bears and should be omnivores, at one time they split from the evolutionary tree and became only bamboo eating herbivores. They even have a sixth digit that helps them to hold the bamboo. The bamboo takes a long period of time to renew or regenerate itself (Kleiman 1992, 7). Even mother pandas tend to have their cubs around the time of new growth of bamboo to aid in the feeding of the cubs (Kleiman 1992, 11). However, they will eat some deer and rodents in the wild and rice, sugar cane, potatoes, apples and carrots when in captivity (Putatunda 2012, 4). Because the bamboo is so low in nutritional value, pandas must eat a lot of it; up to 14 hours per day (Rhoden 2008,4). They, of course, need to relieve themselves several times per day to account for the byproducts of such as large volume of bamboo.
The panda is an endangered species with studies in 2006-2007 showing there were about 250 in captivity and perhaps 2000 in the wild (Anonymous B 2012, 1). Giant pandas’ habitat has been affected by significant climate changes. In fact, pandas once lived in lands that are now subtropical. Since China’s population is huge, over 1 billion, pandas are being squeezed out and may only last another 50 years in the wild (Kleiman 1992, 3, 4,& 5). Logging has continued to reduce the forest habitat as Chinese desire more products made from softwoods. Herdsman also burn grasslands which then affects surrounding forest (Seidensticker 1992, 2). Pandas are also endangered by poaching for their pelts (Putatunda 2012, 5). Pandas are protected by law and cannot be hunted legally (Rhoden 2008, 6). Protected preserves for pandas cover more than 3.8 million acres of forest. Trade in pandas for commercial purposes is strictly unlawful (Anonymous C 2012, 6). The Sichuan people have been known to use panda urine and pelts for different reasons.
Research data on panda habitats shows that pandas are associated with old-growth forest. Studies on small scales can be extrapolated to large scales and can be used in conservation management (Zhang, et al, 2011, 2 & 3). Alan Taylor ofPenn State University studied bamboo flowerings and found that pandas survived better with some cover from a forest canopy (Kleiman, 1992, 6). Pandas have had radio-controlled collars in China and Beijing University found that some pandas form a local group community but groups do not socialize with other groups (Kleiman, 1992, 9). Researchers in China and the UK have tried hi-tech methods of analyzing the DNA in panda droppings so that they can identify and track them over a large area by age and sex (Briggs, 2007, 2).
Females have a low reproduction rate and, in the wild, have only a cub every two or three years (Tran, 2009, 4). To offset the low birth rate, China and the U.S. have been using artificial insemination from frozen sperm and there are signs that it can increase panda numbers in captivity (Tran, 2009, 1& 2). This arises mostly because the female panda only has a few days a year in which to conceive. This greatly contributes to why the panda is endangered. Artificial insemination had been tried before not until they used the frozen sperm from the male panda Lolo did it result in a live birth.
When born, the panda is helpless and it takes a lot of effort for the mother panda to raise and care for the baby. They also are late to open their eyes and cannot move on their own for about three months (Anonymous A, 2012,14 & 15 ). In spite of the late eye-opening, they actually have very good eyes (Rhoden 2008, 2 ). The Giant Panda lives to about 20 years in the wild and nearly 30 years in captivity. Pandas tend to grow larger in zoos as they are protected and feed regularly bamboo and a rich diet of fruits, vegetables, meat and vitamins (Kleiman 1992, 12). Unfortunately, not everyone believes that a tremendous amount of money should be spent on conserving the Giant Panda when there is not enough habitat for them to live in (Anonymous B 2012, 13).
Socially, pandas tend to be solitary or prefer being on their own. Adults have their territory and females do not like to have other females intrude on their land. Giant pandas use their voice and scent to mark their territory. They have been known to attack humans but not likely unless bothered by the human [Anonymous B 2012, 3).
Giant pandas are loved the world over for their cute and cuddly appearance. In fact, one of my favorite restaurants, Panda Express, also features the panda in its logo. I think the way mother pandas bond with their offspring is special and gives me a warm feeling. The beloved panda is the symbol of the World Wildlife Foundation, WWF, which has used it as its logo since 1961. The logo was designed by Sir Peter Scott, a world famous conservationist. The WWF has been active in panda conservation actively since 1980 and invited by the Chinese to help in the conservation movement. The World Wildlife Foundation tries to influence the Chinese government by affecting policy and promoting communication (Anonymous C 2012, 1). Also,one of the WWF’s missions is to create green corridors so that pandas in different and remote areas can be linked together. The panda’s natural habitat was given UNESCO World Heritage Site status such as the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries (Anonymous B 2012, 12). Finally, I am jealous of my dad as he has been able to travel to Washington, D.C. for the FDA and see pandas at the National Zoo. Famous pandas have been Chi Chi at the London Zoo in the early 1960s (Anonymous C 2012, 5) and, since 1972, at the Washington [National Zoo] were Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing (Kleiman 1992,1). I cannot wait until the next time I visit the great San Diego Zoo. I am ready to find and be amazed by these unique and wonderful animals. Life is not all black and white but I think the Giant Panda makes a great exception!
In summary, the Giant Panda or panda is not only one of the most recognized symbols of animal endangerment but also one of the least understood. There are so many aspects to understanding and researching information about the panda. Areas that have been studied and continue to be investigated are the panda’s habitat, diet, breeding, reproductive and social environment.
The panda’s numbers have been affected by the growing Chinese population and their expansion into the habitat areas of the panda. Forests contain the bamboo that the Giant Panda depends on for nearly all of its diet. It is difficult for the panda to maintain its numbers as it does not reproduce much. In the wild the numbers are lower than in controlled conditions such as protected parks and zoos. The panda ultimately appears cuddly with its dramatic black and white color and serves well the mission to provide a world-wide focus to those endangered animals on our planet.