Chinese giant panda photographed in the wild using a camera trap (eMammal – Creative Commons Licence)

Accepted scientific name:  Ailuropoda melanoleuca melanoleuca (David, 1869)

Description:  Black and white fur, with the typical body shape of bears.  The thick pelage is black around the eyes, on the ears, muzzle,legs and shoulders travelling upwards to meet over the back; the remainder is white.  Adult male giant pandas weigh between 90 and 160 kg, females between 75 to 125 kg.  Length 120 to 180 cm, height 70 to 90 cm high at the shoulder.  Uniquely amongst bears they have broad, flat molar teeth and enlarged wrist bones that function as opposable thumbs.

Range:  Once widespread over much of eastern China and down into northern Vietnam, Laos and Burma (Myanmar), now confined to a few mountain ranges in central China, in Sichuan and Gansu provinces.

Distribution of wild giant pandas in six mountain regions (Qinling, Minshan, Qionglai, Liangshan, Daxiangling and Xiaoxiangling) in three Provinces (Gansu, Shaanxi, and Sichuan) of China. Adapted from Wang et al. (2018) (Creative Commons Licence)

Habitat:  Chinese giant pandas live in damp broadleaf and coniferous forests with a dense understory of bamboo, typically at elevations between 1,500 to 3,000 metres, but have been recorded as high as 4,500 metres.

Status:  Classification changed from endangered to vulnerable IUCN in 2016.  Current estimates place the population in the wild in the region of 1,600 (plus around 200 to 300 of the Qinling panda subspecies.  Critically, a number of isolated sub-populations have fallen below 50 individuals which may have an adverse effect on the long term health and viability of these populations.

Life span:  Around 20 years in the wild and 30 in captivity.

Food:  The diet of Aliuropoda melanoleuca is almost completely vegetarian with bamboo forming fully 99 percent of their diet.  Because of the difficulty in extracting protein from the bamboo, giant pandas need to spend up to 12 hours each day feeding and will eat up to 17 kg of the plants a day.  Bamboo contains less than four percent protein (often as low as 1.5 percent) in the form of nitrogen and giant pandas digestive systems have not evolved to achieve maximum efficiency in extracting plant protein, unlike herbivores such as deer.  The bears will eat carrion when available and may also catch and eat insects and small mammals.

Behaviour:. Generally solitary and territorial, Chinese giant pandas do not make dens and do not hibernate but can climb and will take shelter in trees and rocks.  During cold weather the bears will descend to lower elevations.

Mating occurs between March and May followed by a gestation period of between 95 to 160 days.  Females will descend to lower altitudes to give birth, usually making a birth-den in a cave or a hollow tree.  Often two cubs are born but, in the wild, only one usually survives.  Cubs’ eyes open at about seven weeks and they will begin to venture out of the den at around four months.  Mothers will often leave their cub in a tree whilst they go off to forage for food.  Cubs usually remain with their mothers for around eighteen months but sometimes for up to three years.

Threats:  Although recent research suggests that pandas in the wild do not have as low a breeding success rate as was commonly supposed, the relatively low numbers of animals believed to be present in the wild together with habitat destruction and fragmentation continue to be significant conservation issues which need to be addressed.  Whilst there is a large scale giant panda captive breeding programme there has not to date been any corresponding success in the reintroduction of captive-bred animals to the wild.


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Page created 17 August 2017