Giant Panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca
The animal we all know (and love) as the panda, the cuddly-looking, lumbering, black-and-white creature, is properly known as the Giant Panda. Always a rare animal, it was considered by the Chinese to be a semi-divine creature during the second century. Currently classified as being a member of the Ursidae (bear family), zoologists have suggested that it has its own family (Ailuropodidae), as its feet, skull, jaws and teeth are markedly different from bears. Indeed the name Ailuropod means "cat feet", referring to the catlike pads on its paws. It is unrelated to the red panda, which is a member of the raccoon family.
Native to China and Burma, the panda was discovered by Western scientists in 1869, when Armand David was shown panda furs, but it was not spotted in the wild until about 1914. Nowadays, hunting, and the destruction of its habitat, have reduced numbers in the wild to around 1,000, mostly in the bamboo forests in the Szechwan province of China (although some also live in Kansu and Shensi provinces). As it is an endangered species, the Chinese Government have designated these areas as nature preserves, and have instigated a protection program.
Growing to about 5 feet (1.5 metres) in length (about three feet tall at the shoulder when on the ground), and averaging around 200 pounds (95 kg), the panda lives only in bamboo forests, feeding almost exclusively on the young bamboo shoots. Its strong teeth and jaws are admirably equipped to deal with the tough growth, but its digestive system is not, being more akin to that of a carnivore. As a result, it must eat vast quantities in order to extract sufficient nutrients - in fact, a panda will typically eat between 30 and 65 pounds of bamboo a day (around a quarter of its own body weight), which takes up almost all its waking time!
Agile in the trees, the panda is relatively clumsy on the ground, either waddling or running in typically bear-like fashion. Although many consider them to be harmless and cuddly, they are formidable fighters when pressed, and capable of defending themselves admirably (they have no real predators, other then Man). Their hands have an unusual feature - a bony spur from the base of the wrist, which acts in the same way as a thumb. This enables them to manipulate their food efficiently - just as well when you consider the amount they must eat to survive!
Socially, pandas are generally solitary creatures, 'marking' their territory to alert other pandas. These territories do sometimes overlap, and encounters with neighbours are rarely hostile. They become sexually mature at age five or six, mating during the Spring, and giving birth after a gestation period of between four and five months. Newborn pandas are totally helpless, weighing in at about 4 ounces (100 g), and needing constant maternal attention. The young panda will open its eyes after about 6-7 weeks, and begins crawling a month later, after which it begins feeding itself.
In the wild, they live to around 15 years, although in captivity they may live as long as 30.
Pandas in captivity
Their endangered status and slow reproductive cycle means that their numbers in the wild are still declining, despite efforts to preserve their environment and prevent poaching. The Chinese Government has therefore taken steps to preserve the species, in parallel with its giving of pandas as gifts as a mark of friendship to other nations. The first of these was Su-Lin, given to the US in 1936, and exhibited at Brookfield Zoo near Chicago, the first panda seen in the West. In total, there are currently about 140 pandas in captivity, mostly in China itself, where much research is carried out to support the breeding and preservation programme.
This, and the worldwide concern for the species, has led to pandas being kept in many zoos in East and West. Persistent attempts have been made to breed them in captivity, with varying success. To date there have been over 200 live births in captivity since the first successful breeding in Beijing in 1963. Of these, only 60% survive for more than a month, and only about one-third live to adulthood.
Although they have a reputation of being fussy eaters, in captivity they are fed on a mixed diet, including cereals and milk, as well as a wider variety of vegetables (sugar cane, rice gruel, carrots, apples, and sweet potatoes).
Endangered and protected
Many organisations exist to protect the giant panda, the best-known of which is the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), who have adopted it as their symbol. The Chinese have set up protection programs, and police the reserves to deter and catch poachers, with some success. The breeding program mentioned earlier is growing, and becoming more successful, and attempt are being made to reintroduce the species back into Burma.
With over 30 reservations in total, China naturally plays a major role, but Western organisations have provided support. The WWF has been involved with the conservation programme since 1981, offering financial support and publicity to the team under George Schaller at the Wolong Reserve.
We can only hope that their efforts are successful, and the we will continue to see these beautiful and unusual creatures thriving in the wild again.
Afterthought: "Panda" is also the name given to police beat patrol cars in the UK and many other areas of the world.