The giant panda is a large, black and white bear species that is native to the southern region of central China, where it prefers mountainous habitats. Prior to the human developmental activity in the animal's habitat, the giant panda could also be found in lowland areas. The giant panda relies on the bamboo plant, which makes up nearly all of its diet. Occasionally, this species may supplement its diet with rodents, carcasses left over from other animals, grasses, or roots. Pandas grow to an average length of between 4 and 6 feet and a shoulder height of 2 to 3 feet. The male is larger, typically weighing around 350 pounds, while the female weighs between 150 to 276 pounds.
This species is divided into two subspecies: the Ailuropoda melanoleuca (the typical black and white panda) and the Ailuropoda melanoleuca qinlingensis (also known as the Qinling panda). The black and white giant panda is the more common of the two subspecies and can primarily be found in the Sichuan province. The Qinling panda is less common. This subspecies is light reddish-brown and white in color and can only be found in the Qinling Mountains of Shaanxi province.
Conservation Status Of The Giant Panda
Although always concentrated in south-central China, the giant panda once inhabited areas as far away as Southeast China and around Beijing. As humans began to destroy the bamboo forests within its range to make way for agricultural endeavors and increasing urbanization, the panda began to disappear. This species is perhaps one of the earliest icons for the plight of endangered animals. In 1936, a fashion designer from the US brought a cub to the country, drawing attention to its fight for survival.
Under pressure to address the issue of panda conservation, the Chinese government created 4 protected nature reserves and made killing the giant panda illegal at the beginning of the 1960’s. Beginning in the 1970’s, the government began tracking the population size of wild pandas, resulting in one of the largest species-specific population surveys in the world.
Threats To The Giant Panda Population
The biggest threats facing giant pandas include: habitat loss and hunting.
As the human population in China continues to grow, the demand for land increases. Urban centers are quickly growing and infringing on traditional panda habitats. In order to make room for housing, businesses, and agriculture, people are destroying the bamboo forests that pandas need for survival. Additionally, bamboo is harvested by the timber industry to meet an increasing demand of bamboo goods around the globe. Civil infrastructure, such as roads and railways, are fragmenting panda habitats as well, making it impossible or difficult for these animals to migrate to new food sources. Recently, concerns over mining and hydroelectric plants have been mentioned as threats to this species. Increased tourism to this area is another factor that contributes to habitat loss and disturbs wild panda populations.
The government of China has prohibited killing pandas within their natural habitats. Today, a small demand continues for panda furs, although it has declined significantly from previous demands thanks to increased public awareness about the ecological importance of this species. Hunting, however, continues to threaten the giant panda. Hunters set traps for other animals (like musk deer, for example) and this species often wander into the traps unintentionally, causing injury and death.
Giant Pandas In The Wild
Currently, the wild panda population is estimated at around 1,864, which represents a 17% increase over the 2003 population size (1,596).
These wild pandas can only be found in 3 provinces of China: Shaanxi, Gansu, and Sichuan. Approximately 66.8% of the wild population lives in 67 protected nature reserves, which cover a total area of 6.37 million acres. This area of protected lands is 11.3% more than the amount of protected land available in 2003. These figures mean that around 33.2% of the panda population lives outside of protected areas, which continues to pose a threat to this species.
As a result of more than 3 decades of hard work and commitment by the Chinese government, international nonprofits, and local communities, the giant panda species is no longer considered endangered. Today, it has been upgraded on the IUCN Red List vulnerable. Most experts agree that its population size and growth are sustainable. This fact combined with the increased availability of natural habitats prompted researchers and conservationists to remove this species from the endangered list. The giant panda continues to stand as a flagship species for conservation efforts all over the world.
Giant Pandas In Captivity
As of 2013, 375 giant pandas are being kept in captivity. This number is more than double the amount of pandas that were in captivity in 2003, just 10 years prior. Many of these individuals can currently be found at 25 zoos in 15 different countries: the US, Canada, Germany, Spain, Mexico, Japan, Australia, China, France, the UK, Belgium, Singapore, Austria, the Netherlands, and Thailand. The majority of these zoos have active agreements with China in order to borrow pandas for a limited amount of time. Sometimes the zoos will pay a few to exhibit pandas for a set number of years and the money paid goes to conservation and habitat restoration programs in China. Additionally, some zoos attempt to breed these borrowed pandas before sending them back to China.
The Adelaide Zoo in Australia is the first panda exhibit to be opened in the southern hemisphere. Wang Wang and Funi are the two pandas housed at this zoo within a 32,291 square foot enclosure. As in most panda enclosures around the world, this exhibit offers trees for climbing, waterfalls for playing, and air conditioned areas for staying cool. Pandas in captivity are fed a diet of specially prepared food in addition to eggs, bananas, fish, oranges, honey, and other plants.
One of the reasons for the increase in pandas in captivity may be attributed to breeding programs currently underway at zoos and research centers around the world. Some of the cubs from captive breeding programs are later reintroduced to the wild, while others remain in captivity. Many people criticize these programs, claiming that the cost of running them would be better spent in habitat restoration efforts.