While the most common Chinese word for panda translates as “large cat bear”, the giant panda is not a cat and may not be a bear. Although it is currently considered part of the bear family (Ursidae), until recently it was classed among the raccoon family (Procyonidae). Both the giant panda and the much smaller red panda have distinctive facial markings reminiscent of raccoons, but also of the South American spectacled bear. While both types of pandas survive on a diet consisting almost entirely of bamboo, both are technically omnivores, with digestive tracts more typical of carnivores. There is active debate about whether the two types of pandas will both end up in the same taxonomic family.
The scientific classification of the giant panda is Ailuropoda melanoleuca, which is derived from the Greek root words for cat feet, black-white.
An adult giant panda stands about six feet tall and weighs about 300 pounds. Males are larger than females. In captivity, they can live up to 35 years. Where most bears walk on their knuckles, the feet of the panda are plantigrade, the same as human beings. Their eyes have vertical slits, like those of a cat and unlike those of any other member of the bear family. The panda also has a distinct “thumb”, actually a modified sesamoid bone, on its front paws. These “hands”, powerful molars, strong jaw muscles, and the flattened face all are highly useful in reaching and chewing hard bamboo, their primary activity during most of the daylight hours. The soft black-and-white fur is very warm, a factor which contributed to their being overhunted in previous decades.
While the range of the giant panda used to be much larger, today they are found in the wild only in the bamboo forests of the Tibetan Plateau, forests that are shrinking every day due to farming, logging, land development, and even poaching for meat or fur, or for illicit zoos. Individual giant pandas each require a range of about three square miles apiece, the smallest range of any species of bear. Because each bamboo species goes through the parts of its life cycle at the same time, a bamboo forest must have at least two species of bamboo to be able to support a panda, so that at least one species will always in the active stages of its cycle.
Pandas are solitary wanderers within their range except when seeking a mate. Reproductive maturity comes sometime after the female is four years old, and can last until she is 20. The female goes into her estrous period once a year, and then only for a few days. The gestation period has an unusually wide range, anywhere between three and five months, which is directly related to climactic environment. When close to giving birth the mother will find a cave or hollow tree, where she will give birth and raise the cubs alone. The newborn cubs will weigh under a half a pound and be almost entirely helpless. The cub is born naked, the distinctive fur not growing in until nearly three months of age. It begins to wean at six years of age. Although up to two cubs may be born, the mother can only properly nurse one, and the other usually starves.
Pandas in captivity are no longer allowed to leave China except on loan, at a cost of one million dollars per year. Part of the lease agreement is that any cubs born during this time also belong to China. Until quite recently pandas didn’t reproduce in captivity, lacking both a reproductive drive and nurturing instincts. Now, however, zoo breeding programs are starting to become quite successful, and very slowly the highly endangered status of the giant panda is being reversed. Numbers alone, however, will not solve the habitat issue.
So symbolic of endangered species has the giant panda become, the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) uses its image on its crest.