Giant Panda Ailuropoda melanoleuca

“For over 50 years, the giant panda has been the globe’s most beloved conservation icon as well as the symbol of WWF. Knowing that the panda is now a step further from extinction is an exciting moment for everyone committed to conserving the world’s wildlife and their habitats,” -Marco Lambertini, WWF Director General.

On September 4th, 2016 the Giant Panda has just been downgraded from ‘Endangered’ to ‘Vulnerable’ on the global list of species at risk of extinction, demonstrating how an integrated approach can help save our planet’s vanishing biodiversity. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced the positive change to the giant panda’s official status in the Red List of Threatened Species, pointing to the 17% rise in the population in the decade up to 2014, when a nationwide census found 1,864 giant pandas in the wild in China.

Geographic Range

In the wild, giant pandas are only found in the remote, mountainous regions of central China, in Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, according to the National Zoo. In this area, there are cool, wet bamboo forests that are perfect for the giant panda's needs. Giant pandas make their dens from hollowed-out logs or stumps of conifer trees found within the forest. Since they live mainly in bamboo forests high in the mountains of western China, Giant Pandas subsist almost entirely on bamboo. They must eat from 26 to 84 pounds of it every day, a formidable task for which they use their enlarged wrist bones that function as opposable thumbs. (Temperate broadleaf and mixed forests of southwest China)

Threats to the Giant Panda

The primary threat facing Giant Panda populations is the continuing effects of previous habitat loss, resulting in highly fragmented habitat and, in many cases small, isolated populations. According to the Fourth National Survey, the Panda population is composed of as many as 33 subpopulations, 18 of which contain fewer than 10 individuals. The extent to which these are demographically separate populations remains uncertain, but this fragmentation certainly increases vulnerability to extinction through environmental and demographic stochasticity and loss of genetic diversity.

Threats associated with edge effects, human disturbance, and small population size are most severe in these small, isolated populations. Increased fragmentation from roads, hydroelectric dams, mining, and other infrastructure projects further threaten Panda populations. Tourism is increasing in some areas and if not managed properly, could negatively impact Panda populations. Pathogens and parasites may be an emerging problem compromising Giant Panda health and survival, particularly in areas where dogs, livestock, and other domesticated animals may introduce novel pathogens

Pandas' reliance on bamboo as a primary food source puts them at risk during this plant's characteristic mass synchronous flowering and die-off events, which occur at intervals of 15 to 100 years. Before human expansion confined Pandas to high elevations, Pandas had access to more species of bamboo adapted to different elevation zones. When one bamboo species experienced a die-off, Pandas could easily migrate up or down slope to access a different species that was not affected. Confined to its more limited elevation range today, Pandas are sometimes put at risk of starvation, especially when more than one bamboo species flowers at the same time.

Hunting remains an ever-present threat. Poaching the animals for their fur has declined due to strict laws and greater public awareness of the panda’s protected status. But hunters seeking other animals in panda habitats continue to kill pandas accidentally.

Current Population: 1,864 (in the wild)

The first Chinese survey (1974-77) estimated there were 2,459 giant pandas in the wild. The second (1985-88) estimated 1,114. The third survey, published in 2004, estimated there were 1,596. The latest rise in the estimate is particularly encouraging, as the 2004 increase was in large partly down to researchers using better techniques and surveying a wider area. The new figures show that the hard work of the Chinese government, local communities, nature reserve staff and WWF is paying off. The World Wildlife Fund has taken great action in conserving the population of Giant Pandas through extensive research.

Camera traps in China have captured images and video footage of giant pandas that are often difficult to see in the wild. The photographs and video are some of the most amazing images ever of pandas and other species in their remote habitat, which were caught on film as part of long-term wildlife monitoring projects set up in panda nature reserves by the Chinese government and WWF. Donations and the Adopt a Panda movement have given money to organizations working to protect the rights of these creatures.

Species Ecology

A member of the order Carnivora, Giant Pandas have evolved to specialize on a diet of bamboo. Bamboo is a poor food source, low in protein and high in lignin and cellulose, and wild Giant Pandas can only digest an average of 17% of dry matter and about 27% of hemi-cellulose. Thus, to meet their daily energy requirement, Giant Pandas must consume a large amount of bamboo, up to 12.5 kg per day, and defecate more than 100 times daily. Pandas have large, muscular jaws with skeletal features to accommodate the musculature and its famous “pseudothumb” used to hold and manipulate bamboo for processing. However, compared with other herbivores, the Panda has very low digestive efficiency because its digestive tract still resembles that of its carnivorous ancestors. The Panda’s feeding strategy emphasizes volume, requiring it to allocate much of its time to foraging (approximately 14 hours daily).

Giant Pandas also compensate for digestive inefficiency by selecting the most nutritious parts of bamboo plants and by altering diet selection seasonally commensurate with changes in nutritional profiles of bamboo species. They demonstrate strong preference for seasonally available new bamboo shoots, rich in nutrition and energy and low in fibre. Outside the late spring bamboo shoot season, Pandas favor leaves, although more stems are incorporated into their diet during the winter months when leaf quality and quantity diminishes.

Habitat and Movement Pattern

Using various measures of habitat suitability, efforts to map Panda habitat have proven valuable for guiding the establishment of the Panda reserve system. Giant Pandas typically occupy temperate montane forests at altitudes of 1,500–3,000 m. Range-wide analysis of ecological covariates associated with Panda presence suggested that Giant Pandas are associated with old growth forests, a finding previously unrecognized in studies implemented on smaller spatial scales. As an obligate bamboo specialist, the Giant Panda’s reliance on this resource is clear, yet it has usually been ignored in habitat suitability models because mapping bamboo understory using remote sensing techniques is difficult. Including understory bamboo in habitat models dramatically decreases estimates of available habitat and increases measures of fragmentation.

Giant Pandas are a solitary and seasonal-breeding mammal, only coming together during the breeding season, from March to May, for reproductive purposes. Male Pandas occupy large home ranges overlapping several females and are known to congregate around estrous females. Male Pandas are able to locate females across large areas, and demonstrate fierce and injurious aggression in competition for access to females. Because Pandas live a solitary existence, they must rely heavily on "chemosignals" to communicate with one another without necessitating face-to-face encounters. Giant Pandas make use of a system of traditional communal scent mark stations that provide them with reliable locations they can visit to deposit signals and investigate signals left by other Pandas.

Overall Ecosystem

he Chinese government, in partnership with WWF, has also developed bamboo corridors to link pockets of forest, allowing the pandas within them to move to new areas, find more food and meet more potential breeding mates. But with panda habitat continuing to be fragmented by roads, railways and other human development, additional corridors will be needed to connect isolated panda populations.

The Chinese authorities and WWF have initiated a variety of community development projects in the Minshan and Qinling Mountains

  • Providing local communities with alternative livelihoods that provide a sustainable income for families while reducing the negative impact of medicinal plant harvesting and poaching;
  • Helping people to find a wider market for their locally produced goods, such as honey, pepper, walnuts and potatoes;
  • Providing villages with alternative energy sources, such as wood-saving stoves and bio-gas from pig manure, so people can cook and stay warm while harvesting less wood from the forests;
  • Showing communities how to protect panda habitat without compromising their economic livelihoods by training them in sustainable logging methods, introducing new income-generating activities like ecotourism, and raising awareness about conservation.

The success of panda conservation in recent years owes much to the dedication and determination of Chinese and international researchers working with the governments, universities and conservations organizations, such as WWF. By spending countless hours monitoring and researching, they have been able to develop an accurate picture of the panda's population status and current threats, and formulate effective measures that have reversed the panda's decline.

Created By
Margaret Filkin
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