The giant panda is a national treasure in China and is therefore protected by law in its bamboo forest home. This unique bear has long been revered and can be found in Chinese art dating back thousands of years. The Chinese call the beloved pandas large bear-cats. Giant pandas have also fascinated people living outside of China; French Missionary Pere Armand David first described them for science in 1869. Now, more than 100 years later, the worldwide love for pandas has been combined with international conservation efforts.
Read the full article by Pritish Kumar Halder to know about Giant pandas – reproduction, conservation, habit and diet.
Why did the panda get its colors?
One theory is that pandas developed the contrasting black and white colors over time so they would stand out in the forest and be able to find each other to mate. Another idea is that the broad blockings of contrasting color may serve to camouflage the panda in the bamboo or treetops. Anyone who’s tried to spot one of our panda cubs up in the tree napping can verify how difficult that can be! Scientists have yet to confirm what the real purpose of the panda’s coloration is. Each panda has markings that are slightly different from any another panda. There is also a rare brown and white variation of the giant panda.
HABITAT AND DIET
Giant pandas live in the mountains of southwestern China, in damp, misty forests, mostly at elevations between 4,000 and 11,500 feet (1,200 to 3,500 meters). They need old-growth conifer forests with at least two types of bamboo and water access. These old-growth forests provide old, hollow logs and tree stumps large enough for panda dens. Pandas stay in a home range that’s 3 to 7 square miles (8 to 18 square kilometers). In areas where food isn’t as plentiful, the home range might be a bit larger. Like other bears, pandas spend most of the day eating and sleeping.
Bamboo is the most important plant for giant pandas. They spend at least 12 hours each day eating bamboo. Because bamboo is so low in nutrients, pandas eat a lot of it daily. They grasp bamboo stalks using their five digits and a special bone that extends from their wrist called a “pseudo-thumb.” That little pseudo-thumb adeptly holds and manipulates bamboo, almost as well as your thumb does.
Pandas use their teeth to peel off the tough outer layers to reveal the soft inner tissue of the stalk. Strong jawbones and cheek muscles help pandas crush and chew the thick stalks with their flattened back teeth. Bamboo leaves are also on the menu, as pandas strip them off the stalks, wad them up, and eat them. Giant pandas have also been known to eat grasses, bulbs, fruits, some insects, and even rodents and carrion. Pretty much whatever they can find.
Pandas aren’t party animals by any stretch of the imagination. Like other bears, they spend most of the day eating and sleeping. Pandas are solitary by nature, and they take their own “space” seriously! Since a panda needs so much bamboo each day to survive, it only makes sense that two’s a crowd when it comes to the bamboo forest. If two pandas happen to cross paths, they’ll growl, swat, and lunge at each other, and maybe even bite each other. There are two exceptions to this less-than-welcoming attitude. The very brief mating season and mothers with cubs.
Although pandas are generally solitary as adults, they are exposed to the scents of other neighboring pandas that have crossed over their path days or weeks before. If a female is starting her estrus soon, it makes sense that she would need to advertise her status to any males that might be in the area. She scent marks, and a male that comes across her scent a few days later can recognize the change in her status via that scent mark. Our conservation work in Wolong has confirmed that males are more interested in scent from a female who was known to be in estrus at the time she left the scent.
Once he has identified this change in a female’s status, a male remains closer to this female, assessing her status more frequently and keeping closer tabs on her so he can be present when she is ready for mating. This is important, as there is only a two- to three-day period that the female is receptive to breeding. When she is no longer receptive, the male moves on to find another willing female. He does not help raise any cubs born.
Mature females usually breed just once every two or three years. A typical female panda may bear about five litters in her lifetime.
Giant pandas are only about the size of a stick of butter at birth, and they’re hairless and helpless. The panda mother gives great care to her tiny cub, usually cradling it in one paw and holding it close to her chest. For several days after birth, the mother does not leave the den, not even to eat or drink!
The cub’s eyes open at 50 to 60 days of age, and by 10 weeks the cub begins to crawl. Its teeth appear by the time it is 14 weeks old, and mother and cub spend much less time using their den. By 21 weeks, the cub is able to walk pretty well. At this time, the cub starts to play with its mother, and at 7 to 9 months of age, it starts attempting to eat bamboo. The cub continues to nurse until about 18 months of age. At this time, the mother is ready to send the cub off on its own, so she can prepare for her next cub.
Once a young panda reaches a weight of about 110 pounds (50 kilograms) and is about 2.5 years old, it is probably safe from predators. However, wildlife such as the golden cat, yellow-throated marten, dhole, and weasel prey on panda cubs and juveniles. Long ago, panda cubs were also prey to tigers and leopards, as their relatively slow gait on the ground made them easy pickings. To stay safe, solitary cubs scamper high in trees and remain there until their mother returns. Spending hours and hours asleep up in those trees. When they are resting quietly in the branches, they can be hard to spot.
Giant pandas face big problems:
Today, only over 1,800 giant pandas survive on Earth. Until 2016, they were categorized as Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. They are currently listed as Vulnerable, thanks to numerous conservation efforts that have helped to increase their population. However they, still face many serious threats:
Unfortunately for pandas, China’s forests have changed. The country has more than a billion people. Just as in the US, with more people have come more roads, homes, cities, and farms. They mine, harvest trees, and use other natural resources. The giant panda’s range shrunk as trees were removed in logging operations and land was cleared for farming. In fact, panda-suitable habitat decreased by half between 1974 and 1985.
Populations of pandas have become small and isolated, hemmed in by cultivation. Some panda habitat has literally been encircled by farms, villages, and business sites—creating “islands” between which pandas can’t safely move without coming upon human communities or crossing dangerous highways. In some pockets, very few pandas are found. They are isolated and cut off from other sources of bamboo—and from other pandas.
In some areas, forest clear-cutting has completely removed all large trees—and all appropriate tree and rock den sites. Without a protective den, panda cubs are more susceptible to cold, disease, and predators.
Low reproductive rate:
Pandas like to be by themselves most of the year, and they have a very short breeding season, when a male looks for a female to mate with. Females give birth to one or two cubs, which are very dependent on their mother during the first few years of life. Mother pandas care for only one of the young. In panda facilities in China, wildlife care specialists help to hand raise any twin cubs. One baby is left with the mother and the wildlife care specialists switch the twins every few days so each one gets care and milk directly from the mother.
When bamboo plants reach maturity, they flower and produce seeds before the mature plant dies. The seeds grow slowly into plants large enough for pandas to eat. Giant pandas can eat 25 different types of bamboo, but they usually eat only the 4 or 5 kinds that grow in their home range. The unusual thing about bamboo is that all of the plants of one type growing in an area bloom and die at the same time. When those plants die, pandas must move to another area. This is why good panda habitat should have several different varieties of bamboo.
When hunters set snares for other wildlife, like musk deer, the traps can kill pandas instead.