Ailuropoda melanoleuca, or the Giant Panda,is the rarest member in the bear family, and among the world’s most threatened animals.
Location: It lives in Southwest China (Gansu, Shaanxi, and Sichuan Provinces) to the east of the Tibetan plateau. Giant pandas live in broadleaf and coniferous forests with a dense understory of bamboo, at elevations between 5,000 and 10,000 feet. Torrential rains or dense mist throughout the year characterizes these forests, often shrouded in heavy clouds.
Physical Description: The giant panda, a black-and-white bear, has a body typical of bears. It has black fur on ears, eye patches, muzzle, legs, and shoulders. The rest of the animal’s coat is white. Although scientists do not know why these unusual bears are black and white, some speculate that the bold coloring provides effective camouflage into their shade-dappled snowy and rocky surroundings. The panda’s thick, wooly coat keeps it warm in the cool forests of its habitat. Giant pandas have large molar teeth and strong jaw muscles for crushing tough bamboo. Many people find these chunky, lumbering animals to be cute, but giant pandas can be as dangerous as any other bear. About the size of an American black bear, giant pandas stand between two and three feet tall at the shoulder (on all four legs), and reach four to six feet long. Males are larger than females, weighing up to 250 pounds in the wild. Females rarely reach 220 pounds.
Life Span: Scientists aren’t sure how long giant pandas live in the wild, but they are sure it’s shorter than lifespans in zoos. Chinese scientists have reported zoo pandas as old as 35.
Diet: A wild giant panda’s diet is almost exclusively (99 percent) bamboo. The balance consists of other grasses and occasional small rodents or musk deer fawns. In zoos, giant pandas eat bamboo, sugar cane, rice gruel, a special high-fiber biscuit, carrots, apples, and sweet potatoes.
Lifestyle: A wild panda spends much of its day resting, feeding, and seeking food. Unlike other bears from temperate climates, giant pandas do not hibernate. Until recently, scientists thought giant pandas spent most of their lives alone, with males and females meeting only during the breeding season. Recent studies paint a different picture, in which small groups of pandas share a large territory and sometimes meet outside the breeding season. Much remains to be learned about the secret lives of these elusive animals, and every new discovery helps scientists in their battle to save this species.
Extinction: As China continues rapidly developing, the mountainous areas of southwest China (where this adorable panda lives) is increasingly fragmented by roads and railroads. Habitat loss continues to occur outside of protected areas, while poaching still remains such a big threat. Big strides have been made in recent years to protect this cuddly bear. By 2005, the Chinese government had established over 50 panda reserves, protecting more than 2.5 million acres – over 45 percent of remaining giant panda habitat – protecting more than 60 percent of the population. In 1984, the giant panda was transferred from Appendix III to Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITIES).