The panda is listed as vulnerable in the endangered species category because there are only about 1860 pandas left in the wild. This peaceful creature with its black and white coat is considered a national treasure in China and is adored by the world. The panda is so loved, one of the main organizations dedicated to preserving wildlife, “World Wildlife Foundation “also known as “WWF,” uses the panda as its logo. This organization was invited by China to assist in their preservation.
Pandas live mainly in bamboo forests high in the mountains of western China. These high bamboo forests are cool and wet, just as pandas like it.
They exist by eating bamboo and due to the low nutritional value of bamboo they must eat 20 to 40 or more pounds of it every day. Occasionally pandas will eat other available food, including small rodents, eggs, fish and other flora. Bamboo provides a good amount of water, but pandas need to supplement this with fresh water daily.
Pandas feed on several varieties of bamboo that bloom at different times of the year. If one type of bamboo is destroyed by development, it can leave the pandas with nothing to eat during the time it normally blooms, increasing the risk of starvation. Bamboo leaves contain the highest protein levels; stems have less. Pandas are often seen eating in a relaxed sitting posture, with their hind legs stretched out before them.
Adult pandas can weigh between 150 and 330 pounds and are about three to four feet in height. The panda is in the bear family and they are excellent tree climbers. A panda’s lifespan in the wild is 20 years. Giant pandas are solitary. They have a highly developed sense of smell that males use to avoid each other and to find females for mating.
Pandas between 4-8 years of age reach maturity and can reproduce. However, female pandas are only able to become pregnant for 2-3 days each spring. This is another challenge in maintaining the panda population. Male and female pandas find each other through scents and calls similar to that of goats or sheep. They do not roar like other bears.
The female panda will give birth after five months. The newborn cub is blind, hairless, and tiny, weighing only 3-5 oz. The panda cub is born white and sometimes there are two panda cubs, which is difficult for the female cub to take care of. Completely helpless, the cub cannot move much on its own for nearly 3 months. In turn, the mother is very protective and careful in tending to her cub during this time. The fact that pandas reproduce so infrequently, it is very difficult for their population to recover from their vulnerable status.
Pandas play a crucial role in the bamboo forests where they live by spreading seeds and facilitating growth of vegetation. In the Yangtze Basin where pandas live, the forests are home to a stunning array of wildlife such as dwarf blue sheep, multicolored pheasants and other endangered species, including the golden monkey, and the crested ibis.
The panda’s habitat is at the geographic and economic heart of China, home to millions of people. Pandas bring huge economic benefits to local communities through ecotourism.
Because the panda’s home is in the heart of this county, roads and railroads fragment the forest which isolates the panda population and prevents mating. Another factor why the panda is so vulnerable is forest destruction that reduces the bears’ access to the bamboo they need to survive. The Chinese government has established more than 50 panda reserves, but only 60% of the country’s panda population is protected by these reserves. While hunting the panda is not allowed, they are still often killed accidentally by hunters seeking other animals in panda habitats.
Although adult giant pandas have few natural predators other than humans, young cubs are vulnerable to attacks by snow leopards, eagles, feral dogs, and the Asian black bear. Sub-adults weighing up to 110 lb. may be vulnerable to predation by leopards.
State Forestry Administration surveys have concluded that the panda population has increased since the Chinese government’s actions, and in 2016 the International Union for Conservation of Nature upgraded the giant panda’s status from Endangered to Vulnerable. While an increasing panda population is good news, it is predicted that climate change will eliminate over 35% of the panda’s bamboo habitat in the next 80 years.
By the end of 2017, there were 520 giant pandas living in captivity worldwide. Much of what is known about pandas comes from studying these zoo animals, because their wild cousins are so rare and elusive.