The Giant Panda is one of the most loved animals on the planet. Black and white, cute and cuddly, it is almost becoming extinct. Also known as the Panda bear, or Bamboo bear, its scientific name is Ailuropoda melanoleuca, which simply means Black and white cat footed animal. The Chinese call it “Xiongmao” which means Giant Cat Bear.
Its place in the animal Kingdom is much debated by Zoologists. Currently it occupies a place in the Phylum Chordata, Class Mammalia, Order Carnivora ,Family Ursidae, which is the Bear family. Some Zoologists argue that it should be placed in the Racoon family, ( Procyonidae)while others argue that it should have a family of its own! As of now, it is a member of the Bear family.
Physical features: They have unique coloration of white fur, with black ovals around the eyes and ears. Pandas have a large head, heavy body, short tail and rounded ears. Typically they grow from 3 to 5 feet long and weigh from 300 to 500 pounds. Their black and white coloration contrast sharply with the deep green of their habitat. The fur of the giant Panda is thick and coarse. They resemble bears in shape and size and the slow clumsy way they walk. Like bears, they can stand erect on their hind legs.Two features distinguish it from the bears .Their front paws have opposable thumbs. The thumb is not a real thumb, but an outgrowth of the wrist bone which works like a thumb. Most bears’ eyes have round pupils.The pupils of the giant Panda are vertical slits, like cats’ eyes. Hence the name “Giant Cat Bear”.
Diet: Giant Pandas eat chiefly Bamboo shoots, though they may eat other plants as well. Though largely vegetarian, they occasionally feed on fish and small rodents. Watching a Panda eat is a cute sight. They usually eat while sitting in an upright position, using their front paws to hold their food. An adult panda may eat 20 to 40 pounds a day, and it may take many hours to do so. In between eating, they take naps!
Natural Habitat: Their natural habitat is exclusively China. Even there, they are mainly confined to six small areas of China. These places are along the Tibetan plateau in Sichuan,Gansu,and Shaanzi provinces. This habitat, suitable for the bamboo on which they survive, is a cold, damp, coniferous forest. The mountain elevation ranges from 4000 to 11,000 feet high. Pandas do survive well in captivity.
Social behaviour: Giant Pandas are more solitary than gregarious. They may co exist in small groups, meeting occasionally to mate. They are quiet, almost shy creatures, who would rather be left alone minding their own business. Unlike bears, they do not hibernate. They make descend to lower altitudes for warmer temperatures during the winter.
Reproduction : Pandas have a very slow reproductive rate which is party the cause for their declining population. Males and females( Boars and Sows) mate in spring, attracting each other with mating calls and odors. The gestation period is a little over five months.The baby pandas are called cubs and are pink when they are born. The mother panda nurses the young ones and can take care of the baby for about six months. The average life span is about 28 years.
Future of the Panda : Unless radical measures are taken by the government, the future of the Panda bears seem bleak. Mankind is its worst enemy, indirectly and directly. The urbanization of the Bamboo forests is robbing the Pandas of their natural environment. In addition, man preys upon them allured by their fur. In recent times, strict measures are being taken against this.
Pandas can survive in captivity. Conservation areas in China are set up to take care of them in captivity. In the year 1972, President Richard Nixon was presented with two Pandas that survived for a good long time in the National Zoo in Washington DC. Currently Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, are two Giant Panda bears enjoying life in captivity at the National Zoo.