HISTORY OF THE GIANT PANDA BEAR
Giant Pandas were first introduced to the West in 1869 when a panda pelt and skeleton were sent to Paris by the French botanist, zoologist and priest Father Armand David. He compared it to the Red Panda which looked like a cross between a raccoon and a fox and which was thought to be a relative of raccoons, skunks and weasels, but not bears.
The earliest panda bears were no bigger than housecats and grew to their giant sizes over many millions of years. It's hypothesized that they grew to their giant sizes to adapt to poor nutritional diets such as bamboo, the mainstay of today's Giant Pandas. In order to compensate for their carnivore digestive system eating a plant diet, pandas must eat incredible quantities of food. They eat up to 83 lbs. of bamboo a day to glean the nutrition they need.
Long before the Western cultures embraced the lovable black and white panda, they were revered in Chinese art dating back thousands of years. Giant Pandas achieved world reknown in 1936 when Ruth Harkness captured a nine week old panda cub and brought it to the USA. Her husband Bill had previously traveled to China to search for a living panda but failed to find one before he died. Ruth took up the search with the help of Chinese-American explorer Quentin Young and their search produced the panda cub they named Su-Lin. World love for the unusual black and white panda was borne.
Originally believed to be a member of the raccoon family or even the cat family it wasn't until decades later in the 1970's that DNA showed the Giant Panda to be a member of the bear family. It was estimated that only 1100 pandas existed in the wild and all around the world conservationists worked to prevent the extinction of these strange, beautiful creatures. Later surveys estimated about 1600 pandas in the wild, the increase due to better methods of estimation rather than an increase in population. In the 1980's they were officially declared an endangered species.
According to satellite images taken in 1989, the habitat for Giant Pandas in one Chinese province had shrunk to 50% of it's size just 15 years earlier. In addition, every 20-40 years the bamboo flowers and then dies off. This is normal for the species of bamboo but devastating for the pandas who rely on bamboo as their primary food source. Normally the pandas migrate to a new area when the bamboo dies off but with the dwindling patches of forest where the bamboo grows, the pandas find it harder to migrate and will sometimes starve to death.
The giant panda of today eats almost exclusively bamboo, preferring umbrella bamboo and arrow bamboo, with an occasional dessert of eggs, yams, plant bulbs, insects, fish, honey or the occasional small rodent. Their digestive system is still that of a carnivore so their bodies have not fully adapted to their current diet. Pandas in captivity have a broader diet with more fruits and veggies, rice gruel, sugar cane and fiber biscuits.
Most panda bears live high in the dense rainforests of China at 5,000-11,000 feet where the rains fall year round and the air stays laden with water. Unlike many other bears, pandas do not hibernate, though they will seek shelter in hollow trees or caves. In the winter they migrate to lower elevations. They can climb and swim.
The Giant Panda is regarded a symbol of peace in China though they've been hunted to near extinction for their unusually colored pelts. Between the deforesting of the rainforests and the hunting of the pandas, populations have decreased to near extinction numbers. Poaching was so devastating on the panda population that the government put a death sentence on poachers and panda hunters. Even the death penalty did not stop the killing of pandas. Their value was so high that the sale of a single panda pelt would equal the lifetime earnings of the average peasant. The panda skin is believed to have supernatural powers against ghosts and to bring prophetic dreams to the person who sleeps upon it, making the pelt highly valuable and hence, highly poached.
In the late 1990's the death sentence was changed to 20 years in prison. The Chinese people became aware of the rarity and embraced the panda as a national treasure. Fewer poached the panda and more tried to help the panda, bringing sick and injured panda bears to reserves where they could be cared for and nursed back to health.
In China the panda is called Da Xiong Mao, meaning giant bear cat. The pupils of their eyes instead of being round like other bears are vertical slits like the eyes of a cat. It has also been called the Spotted Bear, Bamboo Bear and Cat Bear. Another unique trait of panda bears is their voice. They often make a bleating sound similar to a lamb or kid goat. They also growl, honk, huff, croak and squeak but they do not roar.
A full size male panda weighs about 250 lbs. and stands 6 feet tall when standing. Panda's in the wild live about 20-25 years. In captivity they can live as long as 30. Pandas are solitary creatures coming together only to mate. Females usually give birth to two panda bear cubs but generally only one survives. A newborn panda weighs about 8 ounces and is about the size of a stick of butter. Cubs stay with their mums for up to 3 years though some leave the den in half that time.
1999 studies showed that only 12 pandas have been born in captivity in 60+ years and only 12% of captive-born pandas survived to a year old. Many attempts have been made to breed pandas in captivity and return them to the wild to replenish their populations. The first attempt was made in 2006 when captive bred Xiang Xiang was released. He was found dead less than a year later. It is believed he died from a fall from a tree while being chased by wild pandas.
While repopulation efforts have not been successful, the Chinese government has created over 50 panda reserves covering 4000 square miles which protect about 45% of the existing panda habitat and bamboo logging laws have been enacted. In addition, several organizations worldwide have undertaken efforts to protect the Giant Pandas. They are officially declared an endangered species.
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