Ailuropoda melanoleuca, or giant panda, is a bear indigenous to China and has come to be a symbol of international conservancy. White with large black patches around its eyes, ears and across its body, males can grow to about 250 pounds and reach 4 to 6 feet long. It uses specialized, enlarged wrist bones to help grasp its favorite food -- bamboo.
Giant pandas live in a few mountain ranges in central China at elevations between 5,000 and 10,000 feet. Widespread distribution once included the surrounding lowlands and much of China, but development and forest clearing pushed these shy animals to the mountainous regions. The wild population is estimated at around 1,500. All of the wild population is concentrated in the Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces.
About 45 percent live in the Minshan Mountains, and another 20 percent live in the Qinling Mountains. The Minshans form a natural barrier between densely populated areas to the south and east and the wilderness of the Tibeten plateau to the west. The Qinlings provide protection from the cold northern weather, allowing more temperate weather and warm rains. The remaining 35 percent of wild pandas live scattered in small pockets across the Qionglai, Liangshan, Daxiangling and Xiaoxiangling Mountains.
The mountains that are home to the giant panda contain mixed deciduous and evergreen forests with a dense understory of bamboo -- the animal’s major food source. Abundant rainfall, mist and heavy clouds characterize these forests. The climate is temperate, without extremes in the winter or summer. Unlike other bears, pandas do not hibernate. They stay below the timberline, moving to lower elevations to keep warm in the winter and higher to stay cool in the summer.
Bamboo comprises the major portion of a giant panda’s diet, even though the animal is a carnivore. This means that it can’t digest bamboo very efficiently and must consume large amounts to derive sufficient nutrition. The average giant panda must eat 20 to 45 pounds of bamboo each day. This limits the panda’s habitat to places where bamboo grows in sufficient quantity to provide enough for them to eat. Most bamboo plants die back after flowering, forcing the panda to move to another area. Since bamboo forests are not as abundant as they once were, this leads to periodic starvation among giant pandas. Occasionally pandas eat flowers, grasses, honey and even rodents.
Though it once roamed throughout China, logging, agriculture and increasing human population have forced the giant panda into slices of habitat and separated the wild population into six groups that cannot intermingle and breed. In the late 1970s, the Chinese government began to implement programs to protect the animal, created several nature preserves and banned logging in the panda’s habitat. Still, panda numbers continue to dwindle, and the giant panda is considered one of the world’s most endangered species.
Panda image by Xiongmao from Fotolia.com
Leslie Darling has been a writer since 2003, writing regularly for "Mississippi Magazine" and "South Mississippi Living," specializing in food and wine, animals and pets, and all things Southern. She is a graduate of the University of New Orleans.