I’ll admit it. I’ve always had a thing for bears. These furry – and seemingly cuddly – creatures have held a special fascination for me since I was a child. I remember my excitement the first time I laid eyes on an American black bear mother and her cub resting beside the main highway that traverses the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While it’s sad to realize now that the mother bear, with cub in tow, was lured there in search of human food from the tourists gawking from the safety of their cars, at that moment it was pure magic.
Over the years, I became more accustomed to seeing bears on hikes and backpacking trips while living in the US Pacific Northwest. My time spent in wilderness areas gave me a healthy respect for the keen sense of smell and great power of these creatures, and I was always lucky enough to leisurely view individuals from a comfortable distance. This included watching a large and beautiful honey-brown specimen for over an hour while it foraged for berries on a mountainside slope in Washington State’s North Cascades National Park.
Let’s Go See The Pandas!
More than a decade later while traveling in China, I had the good fortune of visiting the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in the country’s south central Sichuan Province. The research center has been ground zero in the fight to save this unique member of the bear family (Ursidae) from extinction.
The personality of the giant panda is the polar opposite of all the frightening stories you may have read about bear attacks on humans in the wild. In fact, giant pandas are so widely recognized and universally loved that they were adopted as the symbol for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) when it was founded in 1961.
Since the 1970s, China has used panda exchanges as a diplomatic tool and means of cultural exchange with many international governments, especially with the West. These cultural exchanges – via major zoos – have introduced a generation of children to pandas with names such as Bei Bei, Gao Gao, Gu Gu, Lun Lun and Wang Wang. Just repeat those names several times out loud and try not to smile. I dare you!
A few facts about giant pandas
Once roaming over a large portion of east and southeast Asia, wild giant pandas can now only be found in very small, remote areas of a mountainous region in south central China. Habitat loss and hunting nearly brought these playful creatures to the brink of extinction. The Wolong National Nature Reserve was established in the mountains of south central China in 1958 in an effort to protect and preserve the surviving panda population. The term ‘giant’ was also added to the name ‘panda’ to distinguish the large black and white bears from their smaller red cousins who share the same Chinese habitats.
STATUS: Giant pandas are listed as a ‘vulnerable‘ species due to their historically dwindling range and population, habitat loss and low birth rates both in captivity and in the wild.
NUMBERS AND RANGE: While exact numbers aren’t known, studies indicate there are between 1,500 and 3,000 giant pandas living in the wild in their narrow range in south central China. The conservation news site Mongabay has stated that the wild giant panda population is 1,864, a number also used on the WWF website. As of 2014, there were 49 giant pandas living in captivity outside China in 18 zoos in 13 different countries. The good news is that the giant panda population has stabilized and is very slowly increasing, although authorities must remain vigilant as there are continuing threats to their existing habitat.
DIET: The only distinctly vegetarian member of the bear family, giant pandas are herbivores, with their diets consisting almost exclusively of bamboo. While they have maintained carnivorous digestive systems, giant pandas have evolved to thrive off the consumption of low energy bamboo. Since bamboo shoots are low in nutritional value, giant pandas must eat between 9 to 14 kg (20 to 30 lb) of bamboo shoots a day. Needless to say, they’re either eating or pooping during most of their waking hours.
The preferred diet of the giant panda consists almost exclusively of bamboo shoots. Since bamboo shoots are low in nutritional value, giant pandas must consume 20–30 pounds of this tough plant each day. Photo: Henry Lewis
The Chengdu Research and Breeding Center
The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding Center, located just outside the city, is the best possible place to learn more about giant pandas. In addition to the guided outdoor tours which allow guests to view pandas in a reasonable facsimile of their natural habitat, there’s a very good museum. The exhibits are all aimed at educating visitors about the lives of giant pandas in the wild and the challenges they face.
One of the presented facts that I found very interesting was that male giant pandas have short penises which make it more difficult for the sperm to reach a female’s ovaries for egg fertilization. Why would evolution have created such a mismatch, I remember muttering to myself? Add that fact to the animals’ famous reluctance to mate in captivity and you can see why the center’s mission is centered around their breeding program.
When I visited the center, there were two new baby pandas in its nursery. The building had been designed with a large window (photos of the babies were prohibited when I was there), allowing visitors to peer through the glass at these tiny creatures. Baby pandas are not as cute as their older parents and siblings.
They’re mostly pink, with slight hints of their darker markings and covered with a sparse layer of off-white fur. But, their most shocking trait is their diminutive size. Giant panda babies are proportionally the smallest baby of any placental mammal.
While adult giant pandas weigh between 200 and 300 pounds and grow to a height of four feet, cubs weigh only 90 to 130 grams (3.2 to 4.6 ounces) at birth, about 1/800th of the mother’s weight. For this reason, baby pandas at the center are often taken from their mothers and nursed inside the facility until they are large and strong enough to be assured of survival when interacting with a much larger adult.
According to the WWF’s Living Planet Report 2018, global wildlife populations have fallen by 60% in just over four decades, as accelerating pollution, deforestation, climate change and other man-made factors affect habitats. This dramatic decline includes such iconic animals as the African elephant, the orangutan and the polar bear.
As ironic as it seems, I observe people daily who say they love animals and clearly pamper their beloved cats and dogs. Yet they turn a blind eye to their own personal contributions to climate change and habitat loss, the very engines driving this latest mass extinction of Earth’s wild animal kingdom!
I’ll leave you with this quote from WWF UK Chief Executive Tanya Steele: “We are the first generation to know we are destroying our planet and the last one that can do anything about it.”