Where to see Giant Pandas

Giant Pandas are adored all over the world, mainly for their black, white and fluffy appearance and also their somewhat clumsy nature. These fluffy bears, native to China, are unfortunately endangered.

This is mainly attributable to significant habitat destruction and loss experienced in the past few decades. This blog is going to give you a glimpse into the life of these adorable bears.

Appearance and Characteristics

Food and Diet

Sense of smell

Vocalisations

Reproduction

Habitat

Current status

Appearance and Characteristics

Giant Panda

Giant Pandas are known around the world for their unique black and white coat. They resemble other bears in their shape, but have very distinctive and identifiable markings.

All Giant Pandas have black patches around their eyes and black ears on a white head. Their legs are black and there is a black band across their backs and their mid sections are also white.

It is very difficult to tell Giant Pandas apart since their markings are basically the same on all animals. However, caretakers in retaliation facilities can identify individual Giant Pandas by small markings around their mouth or muzzle.

Giant Panda fur coats are coarse, dense and somewhat oily in texture. Their thick fur acts as a coat to keep them warm in the cool moist climate of the mountain forests.

Unlike other bears, Giant Pandas are typically slow moving and seldom move faster than a walk. They also endearingly as they appear clumsy in their movement.

Food and diet

Giant Pandas are formally classified as carnivores, however, their diet is infact closer to that of herbivores. A Carnivore is an animal that eats mostly meat and a herbivore is an animal that eats mostly plants- like in the case of Giant Pandas.

The Giant Pandas’ diet consists almost entirely of bamboo stalks, shoots and roots. They eat from 25 to 40 pounds of these bamboo shoots per day. Their selection is broad as there are about 25 different types of bamboo for them to enjoy.

When available, Giant Pandas will eat fish, flowers and small animals- thus classifying them as carnivores although this is fairly rare. In captivity they also usually receive milk, eggs, ground meat and specially formulated vitamin bread. Apples and carrots are a favorite treat for the Giant Panda in captivity.

Since the Giant Pandas’ digestive system is not very efficient, they must consume large quantities of bamboo every day in order to obtain the nutrition they need. Cubs are especially prone to digestive problems in their early months of life.

Pandas eat for up to 14 hours a day! Their unique paws make it possible for them to hold the bamboo and bite the stalks. They generally eat in a sitting position but also like to snack lying on their backs.

The puffy cheeks that make the Giant Pandas appear so adorable are actually powerful muscles that enable the Giant Pandas to chew through even the toughest bamboo stalks. Unlike other bears, the Giant Pandas do not store fat and therefore do not hibernate. Consequently, they are constantly in search of food.

One problem for wild Giant Pandas is that the bamboo species flowers and dies. It then takes several years for the bamboo to recover. In the past, Giant Pandas would migrate to other areas in search for new plants. Now, with their range fragmented, this is often difficult and has lead to their sad and steady decline in population. .

Giant Pandas in the wild drink water from the rivers and streams in their surrounding mountain environment.

Sense of smell:

Panda Cubs

Giant Pandas leave scent marks in their territories as their scent marks serve as a major form of communication.

Giant Pandas can determine from the scent if another Giant Panda is in the area, if the other Giant Panda is male or female, how recently they left their mark, and, in the case of females, if they are in a reproductive period.

To mark their location, Giant Pandas will back up to a tree and rub their scent glands on the tree, then use their tail to spread the scent. Some Giant Pandas, particularly males, will back up on the tree until they are virtually doing a handstand in order to place their scent higher on the trunk.

Vocalisations:

Giant Panda

The China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda has been working on a panda linguistics project since 2010.

Scientists first made recordings of pandas at the centre, vocalisations between cubs and adults in various situations, such as when they were eating, mating, nursing, fighting and so on.

In more recent research published in the fall of 2015, Researchers decoded up to 13 different kinds of giant panda vocalisations in a surprising new insight into the private life of the reclusive creatures. They collected a large amount of data on pandas’ voices and activities, and analyzed the voiceprints.

Panda cubs can barely vocalise at all except to say things like “Gee-Gee” (I’m hungry), “Wow-Wow” (Not happy!) or “Coo-Coo” (Nice!).

When they grow a little, cubs learn how to express themselves by roaring, barking, shouting, squeaking, bleating and chirping. “If a panda mother keeps tweeting like a bird, she may be anxious about her babies. She barks loudly when a stranger comes near. The barking can be interpreted as “getting out of my place”, according to the researchers.

Pandas can be as gentle as a lamb when they are “in love”. Male pandas baa all the time when they are wooing their lovers. The females respond with a constant warble if they feel the same.

The researchers were so confused when they began the project that they wondered if they were studying a panda, a bird, a dog, or a sheep.

Reproduction:

Giant Panda

Breeding maturity in the Giant Pandas is generally between four and eight years. Females breed only once a year in the spring. Giant Pandas tend to have a low reproductive rate, partly because the females only ovulate two out of three days a year.

In the wild, Giant Pandas use scent and calls to locate a mate during the reproduction period.

Fragmentation of the Giant Pandas’ habitat is a major impediment to breeding. When towns, roads, and power lines prevent the free movement from one area to another the male Giant Pandas cannot reach the females.

Giant Pandas nest on the ground or in hollow trees, giving birth approximately 100 to 150 days after they have mated. Hollow trees are becoming scarcer creating yet another problem for breeding.

Females give birth to one or two cubs. Triplets are extremely rare. If twins are born, usually only one survives in the wild. The mother will select the stronger of the cubs and the weaker will die. It is thought that the mother cannot produce enough milk for two cubs since she does not store fat.

Cubs will stay with their mothers for about two years. Therefore females only reproduce every other year or less.

Many zoos have tried to breed Giant Pandas but with limited success. The breeding centers in China use both natural mating and artificial insemination and have become much more successful in the past few years.

Habitat:

Panda in a tree

The Giant Panda was once widespread in southern and eastern China, Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma). Today the Giant Panda is limited to the mountains in a few Chinese provinces in southwestern China. Most of the Giant Pandas are in China’s Sichuan Province, but they are also found in Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. Their range is along the eastern rim of the Tibetan Plateau.

Giant Pandas do not have a permanent den and do not hibernate. In the winter they will seek shelter in hollow trees. Giant Pandas typically have a range of 4-7 km but can travel up to 10 km a day looking for food, water, and shelter.

The Giant Panda has lived for centuries in coniferous forests with dense undergrowth of bamboo at elevations of 5,000 to 11,000 feet. Rain or dense mist throughout the year shrouds these remote forests in heavy clouds. In the winter snow is common.

Today, these forests are under attack by dramatic increases in human population. Agriculture, ranching, logging, trapping, and human settlement dramatically threaten their habitat. Previously, they lived at lower elevations but farming and clearing of the forest have pushed them higher into the mountains.

The Giant Panda’s primary food source, bamboo, is decreasing. Bamboo grows under the shade cover of the large fir trees. Logging and clearing the land for agricultural uses is a major factor in the reduction of bamboo.

The impact of rapid population growth has seen the destruction of significant Giant Panda habitat. In an effort to defend the Giant Panda, the Chinese government enforces a logging ban in the Giant Panda reserves.

The 8.0 earthquake of 2008 was in Sichuan Province, home to the Giant Pandas. The quake buried much of the Giant Pandas’ bamboo under tons and tons of rock and mud.

In the 1940s, the Chinese government began conservation efforts to protect pandas. In 1963 the first panda reserve was established in southern China.  Pandas were classified as an endangered species in the 1980s.

Today there are 40 Giant Panda reserves in China. These reserves need to be connected via corridors in order to reduce isolation and fragmentation of the Giant Panda population. Villages and human activities now block open ranges for migration. The fragmentation of Giant Panda areas is a major problem affecting mating.

Another problem related to the fragmentation of the Giant Panda areas is that the bamboo will flower and then die off about every 20 years.  When this occurs the Giant Pandas need to migrate to a new area.  There have been reports of Giant Pandas starving when they are unable to find bamboo in new areas.

The destruction of the Giant Pandas’ natural habitat, the reduction in available bamboo forests and expanding human populations are the main threats to the Giant Panda.

Current Status:

A study in 2014 by the Chinese Department of Forestry estimated the current population of the wild Giant Pandas at approximately 1,864. As of 2020 there are approximately 600 giant pandas in captivity. Giant pandas are on the World Conservation Union’s Red List of Threatened Animals.

The U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) protects giant pandas, as well as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).  While hunting and poaching have been reduced due to strict laws by the Chinese government, accidental capture of giant pandas in traps set for other animals still possess a serious problem.

The future of the giant panda is interwoven with the Chinese people. New advances in environmentally responsible farming, high yield crops to reduce logging, and population control efforts will all help the giant pandas. The Chinese Government also has several projects for reforesting hillsides, protecting grasslands and nature reserves for the giant pandas.

There are also plans to pay farmers to turn cropland back to forests and to establish commercial tree farms to replace logging. Bamboo planting, in Sichuan Province, for the captive and wild pandas is an ongoing project.

Status Change – Some people have questioned the change in status of the giant pandas, by the IUCN, from Endangered to Vulnerable. Let us take this opportunity to say, on one hand, this is cause for celebration. It shows that with your support, progress is being made in panda conservation. 

The Chinese have been working since the 1960’s to save their national treasure and this affirms the efforts are paying off. The captive population is currently stable, as the number in captivity well exceeds the number set forth in the Species Survival Plan.

That said…..there are still great concerns and we have definitely NOT reached even modest goals in panda conservation.  The IUCN states that the vulnerable status is still at high risk of extinction in the wild.

What does it mean for Panda Conservation? Our greatest fear is the public and our supporters will think the pandas are safe at the present time and become complacent and that is not the case. If the government or the public gets lax in conservation efforts, the pandas could rapidly slide backwards.

There may be many unintended consequences of this change including more human activity and trekking in their habitat. A recent International Conference on Panda Conservation published conclusions which state the giant panda is still endangered.

Summary: 

Seeing a giant panda in the wild is highly lucky and rare! Should you wish to encounter one of these amazing bears in the wild, or in a rehabilitation facility below are a few options for you. 

Natural Habitat Adventures 

China Discovery

Wild China

If you enjoyed this article you may enjoy reading more about bears! Brown bears in the wild and Encountering The Polar Bear: King of the Arctic .

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