Giant Panda
(Ailuropoda melanoleuca)
The giant panda is enormously charismatic, and is usually the 'main attraction' in zoos and other institutions where captive individuals are held. Sadly, this striking species has suffered greatly in the wild due to human encroachment onto its disappearing habitat. Pandas feed almost exclusively on bamboo, and need to eat vast quantities to meet their energy requirements. Despite extensive protective measures, pandas are being forced into smaller and increasingly isolated pockets of habitat where there is often insufficient bamboo to support the declining populations. Only a few thousand giant pandas survive in the wild.
Urgent Conservation Actions
Greater protection within reserves, the creation of additional habitat corridors, public education programmes, and further research into conservation requirements.
Fragmented mountain habitats in southwestern China.
Evolutionary Distinctiveness
Order: Carnivora
Family: Ursidae
Fossil evidence indicates that giant pandas had evolved by the late Pliocene or early Pleistocene, some two to three million years ago. The species is currently considered to be the most primitive living member of the bear family (Ursidae), which evolved from smaller, tree-climbing, predatory ancestors (miacids) about 25 million years ago. Fossils show there was a second panda species, the dwarf panda (Ailuropoda minor), which was around half the size of the modern giant panda. This species went extinct less than one million years ago. The bear family contains 8 species in 5 genera. Most researchers agree that there are three distinct lineages (or subfamilies), with the Andean bear (Tremarctinae) and giant panda (Ailuropodinae) having different numbers of chromosomes from the other bears (Ursinae). Unusually, different species of bears can interbreed to produce fertile offspring, although they do not do so in the wild, even in areas where their ranges overlap.
Head and body length: 1,200-1,500 mm
Tail length: 127 mm
Weight: 75-160 kg
The giant panda has a very striking appearance. Its thick, woolly coat is white, with distinctive black markings around the eyes and on the ears, arms, legs and shoulders. The body is large and stocky with stout powerful limbs and a short tail. Although the giant panda is classified as a bear and has the digestive system of a carnivore, it has adapted to a vegetarian diet consisting almost exclusively of bamboo. It is extremely well adapted to this diet – its molars and premolar teeth are wider and flatter than those of other bears and it has powerful jaw muscles to grind the tough bamboo. The panda also has a modified wrist bone with an extra digit which functions as an opposable “thumb” that enables panda to hold and manipulate the bamboo. Male pandas are slightly larger than females. The Qinling panda was recognised as a distinct subspecies in 2005, and has brown fur and a smaller skull than the Sichuan panda.
Giant pandas are primarily terrestrial, although they are good climbers and capable of swimming. They have adapted to an extremely specialised diet consisting almost entirely of bamboo, although meat and some other plants and fruit are occasionally consumed. Since bamboo is not very nutritious the panda must eat huge amounts – often consuming as much as 38 kg of bamboo in a single day. Pandas are active throughout the day and night, spending up to 14 hours feeding, stopping only to sleep or travel short distances. Bamboo is evergreen and provides the species with a year-round food source. Unlike other bears, the panda is unable to build up sufficient fat reserves from its low quality diet to hibernate during the winter months, and must continue to feed on the bamboo throughout the year.

The species is mostly solitary. Individuals maintain well-defined home ranges (around 30 sq km for males and 4-10 sq km for females). Male ranges usually include all or part of the ranges of several females, although the two sexes rarely meet outside of the mating season (March – May). They communicate by calling and by marking trees with scent from glands under the tail. The mating system is polygynous or promiscuous; males compete for access to more than one adult female. Females give birth in the autumn to a single cub, which is born in an extremely immature stage of development. Occasionally two cubs are born (when this occurs, the mother will favour one and abandon the other). Weighing between 85 and 140 g, the cubs are blind and helpless and totally reliant on their mother. Cubs are raised in a den at the base of a hollow tree or in a cave. They are weaned after about 8 or 9 months, but will often remain with their mother for up to 18 months, until she conceives again. Pandas reach sexual maturity at around 5-7 years and are thought to live for around 14-20 years in the wild.
Inhabits temperate broadleaf and mixed coniferous forests. Usually found at elevations of 1,200 to 3,400 metres where there are dense stands of at least one species of bamboo.
The species occurs only in the western and central Chinese provinces of Gansu, Shaanxi, and Sichuan to the east of the Tibetan plateau. Populations are restricted to six separated mountain ranges (Qinling, Minshan, Qionglai, Daxiangling, Xiaoxiangling and Liangshan). These areas of habitat are almost completely isolated from one another. The recently described Qinling panda is restricted to the Qinling Mountains.
Population Estimate
A comprehensive survey carried out in 2004 by WWF and the State Forestry Administration of China indicated that there are fewer than 1,600 pandas left in the wild. However, a 2006 genetic survey indicated there were approximately 66 pandas in Wanglang Nature Reserve, which is more than double the previous estimate. If the same is true for other reserves, then there could be as many as 2,500-3,000 giant pandas in the wild. A further 161 pandas are reported to be living in captivity.
Population Trend
Classified as Endangered C2a(i) on the 2010 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Habitat loss is the greatest cause of the population decline, and continues to be the main threat to the species. Large areas of forest are cleared for agriculture, timber and firewood, and the pandas have been forced up higher into the mountains as China’s growing human population encroaches onto their habitat. Even the pandas protected in reserves are not safe from human activities – rates of habitat loss and fragmentation within the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province (the largest protected area designated for conserving the species) have actually increased since the reserve was formed in 1975. Habitat fragmentation can have a catastrophic effect on giant panda populations. As part of its life cycle, bamboo experiences periodic die-back every 15-120 years depending on the species; the plants blossom, drop their seeds and then die. Often vast areas of forest disappear at the same time, and it can take as long as 20 years before a new crop can support a giant panda population. Previously pandas would have migrated to new areas to find alternative bamboo sources. However, today this is not possible, and pandas stranded in isolated patches of habitat are at risk from starvation during bamboo die-back.

Illegal poaching continues to threaten the species despite extensive protective measures. Wild pandas are illegally killed for their pelts, and are sometimes caught by accident in traps set for other animals. Even at low levels, poaching can severely affect panda populations because the species has such a slow potential rate of reproductive growth.
Conservation Underway
The species is fully protected by Chinese law, and individuals caught poaching or smuggling pelts can face life imprisonment. The panda is also listed on Appendix I of CITES which means that trade in the species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances. More than half of the panda's range lies within protected reserves – there are more than 40 reserves stretching from western Sichuan to southern Gansu and southern Shaanxi – and a network of habitat corridors are being created to link these areas. The panda has been the symbol of the WWF since the 1960s, and the organisation has played a key role in giant panda research and conservation since the 1980s. Together with the Ministry of Forestry of the People's Republic of China, the WWF produced a “National Conservation Management Plan for the Giant Panda and its Habitat” in 1989. The plan aimed to establish a further 13 reserves, restore and manage damaged habitat, and encourage the sustainable use of natural resources in order to maintain a viable wild population. The giant panda is enormously charismatic, and is currently kept in zoos and captive breeding centres all over the world. These institutions have a cooperative network to exchange mating animals and expertise. It is hoped that if pandas can be bred successfully in captivity it may be possible to reintroduce them into the wild. However, the much-publicised failure of captive pandas to reproduce means that the captive population is not yet self-sustaining.
Conservation Proposed
Habitat protection and restoration should be treated as a priority. Populations of wild pandas can remain stable or slowly increase when their basic needs are met. Greater protection is needed within existing reserves to prevent poaching and human encroachment into panda habitat. This should be coupled with public education programmes. Further research into the biology, ecology and behaviour of the species will enable conservationists to apply the most effective management techniques to ensure the long-term survival of the species. The provision of protected habitat corridors to link isolated populations will promote genetic diversity and enable the pandas to migrate to other areas to find food during periods of bamboo die-back. At present captive breeding programmes are struggling due to the current difficulties in breeding giant pandas. Further research into the reproductive biology of the species is required if captive breeding is to be an effective conservation measure.
Giant panda species survival plan
The SSP for the giant panda is a conservation and management plan in which member organisations of AZA work together to ensure the survival of this species.

The giant panda has been the WWF’s logo since the organisation was formed in 1961. WWF has been active in giant panda conservation since 1980.

Pandas International
Pandas International is a non-profit organization formed to ensure the conservation of the giant panda. The main mission of this organization is to raise and provide funds for giant panda research, breeding programmes, veterinary care, global zoo exchanges, habitat preservation and education programmes to increase public awareness of this highly endangered species
Lü, Z, Wang, D. & Garshelis, D.L. 2008.Ailuropoda melanoleuca. In: 2010 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.4. Downloaded on 12 November 2010.

Lu Zhi, Pan Wenshi, Zhu Xiaojian, Wang Dajun and Wang Hao. 2000. What has the panda taught us? In Entwhistle, A. and Dunstone, N. (eds.). Priorities for the Conservation of Mammalian Diversity: Has the Panda had its day? Conservation Biology 3:325-334

Nowak, R.M. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World. Sixth edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.

Servheen, C., Herrero, H. and Peyton, B. and the IUCN/SSC Bear and Polar Bear Specialist Groups. 1999. Bears: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN: Gland, Switzerland.

Wan, Q.-H., H. Wu, and S.-G. Fang. 2005. A new subspecies of giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) from Shaanxi, China. Journal of Mammalogy 86: 397–402.

Xiangjiang Z., Ming L., Zejun Z., Benoit G., Youping C., Hongjia W., Bruford, M. W. and Fuwen W. 2006. Molecular censusing doubles giant panda population estimate in key nature reserve. Current Biology 16(12): 451-452.

ARKive. (Oct 2005).

Distribution map based on data provided by the IUCN Global Mammal Assessment.

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