The giant panda is widely recognizable with it's slow movements and distinctive black and white markings. However, unless you live in China or attend a zoo you aren't likely to see them face to face. They are commonly known as panda bear, bamboo bear or the most common of the twenty names used in China as daxiongmao or "large cat bear." In fact, it's genus and species name, ailuropoda melanoleuca, means "cat feet black white."
The most common panda has fuzzy black and white fur, yet there is a lesser known red panda. He is also a very appealing animal as well as a bamboo eater but differs from the giant panda in that he is redish-brown with white facial tear markings and just about the size of a house cat.
The adult giant panda will grow to between five and six feet tall and weigh in at up to 350 pounds, males weighing in larger than females. The black and white bears have thick, course fur with a wool-like undercoat. It is oily, which is a protective defense against the seasonally cold climate of his natural habitat. They have a life span of up to twenty-five years. They have rounded ears, a large body, short tail and plantigrade feet (toe and heal make contact with ground when walking). It is speculated that its coloring acts as a camouflage in their natural forested and snowy habitat.
Although, pandas may climb into tree hollows or rock crevices for protection against climate, they do not make dens usually but are natural roamers. As they do not hibernate, but move to a warmer climate when food is scarce and it becomes too cold. They are loners with their defined territories of 1.5 to 2.5 square miles each within Qinling Mountains and the Sichuan Province bamboo forests in China.
Solitary animals, they are social primarily during mating only, after which the male leaves and the cub is raised by the mother alone the next two years.
Interestingly, pandas are classified as carnivores and indeed their digestive system attests to the fact. Yet, they live on a diet of almost completely bamboo. Twenty to thirty pounds of bamboo shoots are ingested by an adult panda each day. Because of the amount of human harvested bamboo, its habitat has been cut in half. Because the panda diet is low in nutrition, their digestive tract must stay full, of at least two of the twenty of the twenty-five species of bamboo found in their natural habitat.
Unfortunately, human encroachment on that habitat has forced pandas to move to a higher elevation with limited space and fewer types of bamboo. They feed from twelve to sixteen hours a day with their strong jaw muscles and large molars which are made for the purpose of crushing and grind the fibrous bamboo.
Maturity is reached between four and ten years of age with mating season in spring. The female estrous season lasts only 2 to 3 days, once a year.
The only time the giant panda female keeps a semi permanent den is when she gives birth and raises her small cub. One or two pink cubs weighing 3.2 to 4.6 ounces will be born to a female every two years. However, usually only one furless cub will live and is completely on it's own by two years. The mother may abandon one of the cubs and it dies shortly thereafter. Scientists, still have not figured out how the mother determines which cub she will keep.
The tiny bear needs it's mother's complete attention, nursing 6 to 14 times a day. At one month of age, the cub's coloring pattern has been established. However, they do not crawl until they reach 75 to 90 days old. The tiny bear survives on mother's milk the first year of life, yet he does start to eat some bamboo by the age of six months. By the age of two the cub will weigh up to a whopping 99 pounds.
As the giant panda has become increasingly scarce, more zoos have started keeping them. Until recently it has been difficult to get them to reproduce naturally as they have lost their interest in mating while in captivity. In the past, artificial insemination became the only means of reproduction for the zoos. They are now beginning to have some luck with natural breeding with the large panda population.
Today, the giant panda can only be found within six areas, elevation ranging from 4,000 to 11,000 feet, of inland China. The small number of them that are left compete still for their food and space with humans harvesting bamboo and felling trees in the forests where pandas normally live.
Other than Chinese protected habitats and the limited number in the wild, the rest of the pandas can only be seen in zoos in locations around the world. They are considered an endangered species
It is very expensive for zoos to keep giant pandas, in fact it is the most expensive animal they keep with the next being elephants. Under a ten-year contract, the American zoos pay China a fee of two million dollars for a pair of pandas on loan. Besides this exorbitant fee two adult pandas eat a whopping 84 pounds of bamboo each day. The zoo to be the first to expire it's contract will be the San Diego Zoo, in 2008. They house three pandas and a cub. When a cub is born, the new additional fee to China is $600,000 annually. In addition, the zoos have agreed to pay out another million for research and conservation in the U.S. and China.
At the end of current contracts, the zoos of North America will join together, attempting negotiations with China to lower the fee for their new contracts. If an amicable agreement can not be obtained, the pandas may have to be returned to China. Apparently, other countries pay far less than the U.S. for pandas on loan.
Dennis W. Kelly of Zoo Atlanta says, "Unless there are significant renegotiations, you'll see far fewer pandas in the United States at the end of this current agreement."
Other North American Zoos keeping giant pandas are:
* U.S. National Zoo in Washington D.C. with 2 giant pandas and 1 cub.
* Zoo Atlanta in Atlanta, Georgia with 2 giant pandas and 1 cub.
* Memphis Zoo in Memphis, Tennessee with 2 giant pandas.
Giant Panda's Future
With a number of threats, the giant panda's future is uncertain. It's natural habitat in the bamboo forests of southwest China becomes increasingly encroached upon by humans. And poaching for the beautiful fur pelts remains a problem, as well, leaving them an endangered species.
China's government has established over 50 panda reserves since 2005, saving 45% of the natural habitat (less than a thousand bears). However, those panda's outside of these reserves continue to suffer the inhumanity of human behavior.