South West China - Home Of The Giant Panda
The giant panda is the gem of the bear family and is one of the most threatened. The future is uncertain for this once flourishing creature as its natural habitat diminishes day by day with the growth of the Chinese economy.
There are currently only 2500 mature giant pandas currently living in the mountains of southwest China. In 2005, the Chinese government established over 50 protected panda reserves in an effort to curb the decline of the universally loved bear. The World Wildlife Federation adopted the image of the giant panda at its inception in 1961 to bring about an awareness of the animals’ plight.
Pandas look much like most other bears in terms of physical stature and movement. The defining characteristic for this bear is its distinct black and white coat coloration. Scientists believe that the unusual coloration serves to camouflage the animal in the snowy mountain ranges of China.
Males will average 330lbs at maturity with the females coming in a bit smaller. The diet of the giant panda is primarily made up of the tender shoots of the bamboo tree, though the bear is not averse to eating fruits, honey, eggs, and fish.
Though not much is known about the lifespan of pandas in the wild, a panda in captivity will generally live to about 25 years.
Pandas are land animals, living primarily in the Quinling Mountains and Sichuan Province, with both sexes being extremely territorial. They are nomadic in nature, choosing to take shelter in naturally occurring structures such as caves, crevices, or hollowed out trees than to make a permanent den. Unlike most other bear species, Pandas do not hibernate, choosing instead to migrate to warmer areas.
Giant Pandas are technically a meat eating species, like other bears, though has adapted to a primarily vegetarian lifestyle. Their digestive system is still designed to digest a protein driven diet, making it extremely difficult to breakdown and digest the cellulose of the bamboo. This nutrient deficient lifestyle accounts for the large amount of food it must consume in order to survive and its relatively sedentary lifestyle.
Declines in giant panda populations were recognized as far back as the early 1950’s and has been attributed to large losses in natural habitats, hunting, and extremely low birthrates both in the wild and in captivity. The first national reserve was established in 1958 in an attempt to reverse the trend, but inexperience and insufficient information led to exposure to terrible captive environments. Pollution, deforestation and lack of breeding in these substandard captive environments further reduced panda reproduction. With new laws instituted in the 1990’s as well as improved conditions and advanced conservation techniques, pandas began showing a renewed vigor.
In captivity, the conservation effort has been centered on artificial insemination. Pandas in captivity are reluctant to breed naturally in captivity and efforts to produce offspring in this manner have gone largely unrewarded. Pandas have an average reproduction rate of one offspring every two years. Gestation lasts somewhere between 95-120 days, with the female giving birth to one or two live, helpless young. Panda cubs will remain with the mother for up to two years before striking out on their own.
Recent publicity has been speculated that the giant panda may be at its evolutionary end, though many scientists and conservationists disagree. According to scientists of the Cardiff University in Wales, the giant panda could have a long term, viable future, based on the results of a newly published study. The study indicates that human activities such as hunting and habitat decimation and not the bear’s unusual eating and reproductive habits are to blame for the decline in numbers, citing that the animal is flourishing in areas where habitat conservation efforts are taking place.