The panda, or more accurately known as the Giant Panda, is arguably one of the most appealing animals on earth. It is a true bear native to central-western and south western China, and due to loss of habitat and low birth rate it is now a conservation reliant, endangered species. The Panda's closest living relative - besides the red panda - is the spectacled bear of South America.
The western world first learned of the giant panda in 1869 when the French missionary Armand David received a skin from a hunter on 11 March 1869. The first living giant panda to be seen outside China was by the German zoologist Hugo Weigold, who purchased a cub in 1916. In 1938, five giant pandas were sent to London, but no more to follow for the next half of the century due to the Second World War and its repercussions.
The giant panda is an endangered species because it is threatened by continued habitat loss and by a very low birthrate both in the wild and in captivity. Furthermore, the giant panda has been a target for poaching by locals since ancient times and then by foreigners since it was introduced to the West. Thankfully, starting in the 1930s, foreigners were unable to poach giant pandas in China because of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War, but pandas still remained a source of soft furs for the locals. The population boom in China after 1949 created further stress on the pandas' habitat, and the subsequent famines led to the increased hunting of wildlife, including the Giant Pandas.
The Wolong National Nature Reserve was set up by the PRC government in 1958 to save the declining panda population, but few advances in the conservation of pandas were made, due to inexperience and insufficient knowledge of Giant Panda ecology. Many believed that the best way to save the pandas was to cage them. As a result, pandas were caged at any sign of decline, and suffered further from the terrible conditions. Because of pollution and destruction of their natural habitat, along with segregation due to caging, reproduction of wild pandas was severely limited. But things began to change in the 1990s, when several laws (including gun control and the removal of resident humans from the reserves) helped the chances of survival for pandas. With these renewed efforts and improved conservation methods, wild pandas have started to increase in numbers in some areas, even though they still are classified as a rare species.
Not all conservationists agree that the money spent on conserving pandas is money well spent. Chris Packham has argued that breeding pandas in captivity is pointless because there is not enough habitat left to sustain them. He argues that the money spent on pandas would be better spent elsewhere, and has said that he would eat the last panda if he could have all the money that has been spent on panda conservation put back on the table to do more sensible things with, though he has apologized for upsetting people who like pandas. He points out that "The panda is possibly one of the grossest wastes of conservation money in the last half century."
Despite being a true bear, a panda does not hunt down prey. So, just what does a panda really eat?
Despite its taxonomic classification as a carnivore, the giant panda's diet is primarily herbivorous, consisting almost exclusively of bamboo. However, the giant panda still has the digestive system of a carnivore, as well as carnivore-specific genes, and thus derives little energy and little protein from consumption of bamboo. Its ability to digest cellulose is due to the presence of specialised microbes in its gut.
The average giant panda eats as much as 9 to 14 kg (20 to 30 pounds) of bamboo shoots a day. Because the giant panda consumes a diet low in nutrition, it is important for it to keep its digestive tract full. The limited energy input imposed on it by its diet has affected the panda's behavior. The giant panda tends to limit its social interactions and avoids steeply sloping terrain in order to limit its energy expenditures.
Surprisingly, two of the panda's most distinctive features, its large size and its round face, are adaptations to its bamboo diet. Panda researcher Russell Ciochon has this to say on the matter:
'...like the vegetarian gorilla, the low body surface area to body volume of the giant panda is indicative of a lower metabolic rate. This lower metabolic rate and a more sedentary lifestyle allow the giant panda to subsist on nutrient poor resources such as bamboo...'
Pandas eat any of twenty-five bamboo species in the wild, such as Fargesia dracocephala and Fargesia rufa. Only a few bamboo species are widespread at the high altitudes pandas now inhabit. Bamboo leaves contain the highest protein levels; stems have less. Given this large diet, the giant panda can defecate up to 40 times a day!
Where do pandas live?
Giant Pandas are solitary animals confined to the highly fragmented mountain forests found only in remote China. And because a panda’s diet consists mostly of bamboo shoots, pandas are usually found in bamboo rich forests situated 1500 meters above sea level. However, recent research from Chinese Academy of Sciences has managed to find out a wholelot more about where pandas live.
They generally avoid the higher peaks - as bamboo has difficulties growing in the higher altitude, as well as the lower areas which are now dominated by people.
Dunwu Qi and Fuwen Wei of the Institute for Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and colleagues studied the movements of giant pandas within the Liangshan Mountains of south central China.
That means they are likely to be disproportionately affected by habitat loss and people exploiting the forest.
It should also be taken into account when breeding programmes release giant pandas back into the wild.
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Based on an article by http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_panda
Photo care of http://www.deadlinenews.co.uk/2008/12/17/softie-brown-is-big-on-pandas419/ and http://www.chinaexpat.com/2008/06/13/kung-fu-panda-rocks.html/ and http://en.ce.cn/National/gallery/200612/05/t20061205_9674908.shtml and http://www.art.co.uk/products/p14820137-sa-i2702200/posters.htm