Giant Pandas were first introduced to the West in 1869 when a panda pelt and skeleton were sent to Paris by the French zoologist and priest, Father Armand David. Long before Western cultures embraced the lovable black and white panda, they were a staple figure in Chinese art dating back thousands of years. Giant Pandas became known to the world 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. The world infatuation of the black and white panda was born.
Panda bears were originally thought to be a member of the raccoon or cat family. In the 1970′s, DNA showed it to be a member of the bear family. Estimates put its wild population at 1100 which kicked into gear conservationists from around the world. Later estimates would increase this number to around 1600, mainly due to more precise estimations rather than an increase in population. In the 1980′s they were officially declared an endangered species.
Satellite imagery from 1989 reported that panda habitat from one Chinese province had shrunk by 50% in just 15 years. In addition to shrinking habitat, the staple food source of pandas, bamboo, has a flowering cycle in which it dies off every 20-40 years. Normally the pandas would be able to migrate in search of viable food, but with decreasing patches of bamboo the pandas find it harder to migrate and potentially starve. Pandas predominantly feed on bamboo but will supplement their diet with meat and grasses. Captive pandas are also fed bamboo, sugar cane, rice gruel, a special high-fiber biscuit, carrots, apples, and sweet potatoes. Most panda bears live at an elevation of 5,000 – 11,000 ft. in west central and southwestern China. Unlike other bears, pandas do not hibernate, but will seek shelter in hollowed out trees or caves. In winter they migrate to lower elevations.
Panda poaching used to be a problem due to the extreme rarity and value associated with a pelt. It was believed that the person who slept on a panda pelt would gain supernatural powers against ghosts. Poaching of a panda bear used to carry a death sentence in China. It has since been reduced to a prison sentence of 20 years. The Chinese people have become aware of the importance and value the panda provides to their society and have made the panda a national treasure.
The panda is called Da Xiong Mao in China, which means giant bear cat. A unique trait of the panda is its voice. Pandas make a bleating sound, similar to a kid goat or lamb. They also growl, honk, huff, croak and squeak. They do not roar. They will live 20-30 years and weigh about 250 lbs. A newborn panda weighs about 8 oz., roughly the size of a cup of coffee. They have the distinction of having the largest size difference between newborns and mothers of all mammalian species. The survival rate in captivity is very low, with estimates at less than 20%. The first release of a captive born panda Xiang Xiang, was released into the wild in 2006. He was found dead a year later.
Repopulation efforts have not been successful, but the Chinese government has set aside over 4,000 sq. miles of habitat for the panda bear. This covers about 50% of the habitat of the current population and protects their valuable food source against logging.
Current efforts to improve captive breeding techniques are being approached by Meghan Martin. The Oregon Zoo & PSU have recently collaborated with the San Diego Zoo to expand their conservation projects into Asia working on the iconic bear. We will be conducting research at the China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Pandas (CCRCGP) moved to Bifengxia Panda Reserve in Ya’an, China. Giant pandas are notorious for their reluctance to breed in captivity, and applying the previous findings from our pygmy rabbit studies to this critically endangered species could be the key to increasing population sizes. In a broader context, these studies will improve our understanding of the role of mate choice in captive-bred endangered species and may bring to light one of the main causes of reproductive failures in captivity; the lack of mate choice under current management strategies.
Special thanks to www.gityasome.com for panda tid-bits.