Is it their unusual symmetrical black & white coloring? Their roly-poly, furry bodies? The fact they're about the same size as an American black bear (200-300 pounds and 5-6 feet long), yet so much more rare and mysterious? Whatever the reason, there’s no question that the giant panda is popular!
The giant panda has many intriguing traits which contribute to their allure. Their diet is one unusual trait, consisting 99% of bamboo, a degree of specialization that is rare among mammals. Yet the panda’s digestive system is not well adapted to process all of that plant fiber, so they spend much of their time eating in order to get enough nutrients, and they also poop a lot, as much as 48 pounds per day. Here’s another thing that might surprise you. Because of their solitary nature, you might think pandas are non-communicative, but they have two ways of communicating. With their voices, they will greet each other with a bleating sound like a young goat or sheep would make, and when frightened may make gruff, growling sounds. Pandas also communicate with each other through scent marks made by rubbing their hind ends against tree trunks and rocks. Scientists believe pandas can tell sex, age, and readiness for mating from these scent marks. In fact, their sense of smell is so highly developed that their zoo caretakers can tell that each panda has different favorite scents, such as cinnamon and lavender.
Sadly the giant panda is very rare, with just 200 in zoos worldwide and 1600 in the forested mountains of southwest China, according to a 2004 census survey by the Chinese government. While pandas are still considered endangered, their future looks brighter today than it did even 10 years ago. Nearly half of their remaining habitat has been placed into protected reserves by the Chinese government, and panda breeding programs are now producing as many as 30 cubs per year. However, pandas still face a difficult life in the wild. Although they have no natural predators, pandas are still subject to threads such as drought and illness and natural events such as earthquakes that affect their habitat. Pandas require a very specific type of habitat with plenty of bamboo. When their habitat gets broken up by roads, it is harder for the pandas to reach each other at their annual breeding time, when each female is fertile for only 3 days. Since a female giant panda typically has just one cub every other year, and only 5 to 8 cubs total in her lifetime (which is about 15 years in the wild, or up to 30 years in captivity), the population is slow-growing even under the best circumstances.
No one outside China even knew of the giant panda until 1869, when a French missionary brought home photographs. Today, China remains very protective of these bears, loaning them out to other countries’ zoos only under stringent conditions and for fees averaging $1 million per year.
If you’d like to see one of the 7 giant pandas currently in the U.S., you will need to travel to Atlanta, San Diego, or Washington, D.C. Each zoo has a breeding pair and, if your timing is right, a cub or two. You can also watch the pandas on camera on each zoo’s website. Unlike other bears, pandas do not hibernate, so you can watch the pandas year-round.
What will you see if you watch a panda? They spend about half their day eating and the other half napping), with occasional bursts of energy for running, somersaulting, and tree climbing. But their life is mostly eat, nap, eat, nap … sounds like a good life to me!