Giant Panda

Description and biology

Recognized worldwide, the giant panda has become a symbol in the fight to save endangered species from extinction. The animal shares many characteristics with both bears and raccoons. Since recent genetic tests reveal it is more closely related to the bear, scientists classify it as a member of the bear family (Ursidae).

An average giant panda has a head and body length of 4 to 6 feet (1.2 to 1.8 meters) and weighs between 165 and 350 pounds (75 and 160 kilograms). Its tail measures 5 inches (13 centimeters) in length. The animal’s thick, woolly coat is primarily white. Its legs, shoulders, ears, and eye patches are black.

Bamboo stalks and roots make up 95 percent of the giant panda’s diet. One of its wrist bones is enlarged and elongated, and the animal uses it like a thumb when grasping stalks of bamboo.

The giant panda also has strong jaws and teeth to crush bamboo. The remainder of its diet is made up of grass, bulbs, insects, rodents, and fish. The animal spends 10 to 16 hours eating the 20 to 40 pounds (9 to 18 kilograms) of food it needs each day.

Giant pandas are solitary and territorial. They have a home range of 1.5 to 2.5 square miles (4 to 6.5 square kilometers), which they mark with secretions from scent glands. Males and females come together to mate between March and May. After a gestation (pregnancy) period of 125 to 150 days, a female giant panda gives birth to one to two cubs in a sheltered den.

The cubs are very fragile at birth, weighing only 3 to 5 ounces (85 to 142 grams). If two cubs are born, usually just one survives. It remains with its mother for up to a year. The average life span of a giant panda in the wild is 15 years.

Habitat and current distribution

Among the rarest mammals in the world, giant pandas are found only in the mountains of central China, in the Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces. Biologists (people who study living organisms) estimate that about 1,000 giant pandas exist in the wild. The animals prefer to inhabit dense bamboo and coniferous (cone bearing) forests at elevations between 5,000 and 10,000 feet (1,525 and 3,050 meters).

History and conservation measures

The giant panda has existed in China for hundreds of thousands of years. It was once common throughout the country, but over the last 2,000 years it has disappeared from Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Guizhou, and Yunnan provinces.

In 1869, the French missionary and naturalist Armand David became the first European to describe the giant panda. The species was not well known in the West until a captive specimen was brought to the United States in the 1930s.

As a gesture of goodwill, the Chinese government presented U.S. president Richard Nixon with a pair of giant pandas (Ling-Ling and Hsing–Hsing) in 1972. The animals were kept at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. until their deaths in the 1990s.

Habitat destruction is the primary danger to giant pandas. Since bamboo grows slowly, the pandas need a large range in which to feed. This range is constantly being threatened by China’s growing human population—estimated at over 1,000,000,000. To help save the dwindling giant panda population, the Chinese government has set aside 11 nature preserves where bamboo flourishes.

Another threat to the giant panda is poaching, or illegal killing. The animal is protected by international treaties, and the Chinese government sentences those convicted of poaching a giant panda to life in prison. Nonetheless, the animal is still hunted for its fur, which is sold illegally in Southeast Asian markets at a high price.

More than 100 giant pandas are currently found in Chinese zoos. Several others are housed in North Korean zoos. Only about 15 giant pandas live in zoos outside of these two countries. The animals are often difficult to breed in captivity. The first giant panda birth outside China occurred at the Mexico City Zoo in 1980.