Endangered Species: The giant panda
Wednesday, September 4, 2013, 8:08 PM
Endangered Species is an ongoing series at theweathernetwork.com. We're taking an in-depth look at our changing planet and how it is affecting plants, mammals, reptiles and insects. Today, we're looking at the giant panda.
With only about 1,600 giant pandas living in the wild, this is not the world's most troubled species, but it is arguably the most famous.
Since 1961, this peaceful creature has served as the logo for the WWF and has become a mascot for its homeland of China, as well as habitat and species conservation efforts worldwide.
Much of humanity's fascination with this species has to do with the demeanor of these gentle giants. That, combined with its seemingly friendly physical characteristics, has inspired the public to rally around the bear -- and yet, its population continues to struggle.
Giant pandas once roamed a large landscape, but rampant human development has eroded and fragmented available habitat, pushing giant pandas into the mountainous regions of central China.
Adult males can grow up to six feet in length and reach a weight of 275 lbs. Females are slightly smaller at 220 lbs.
In the past, especially during the turn of the century, giant pandas were prized by western hunters, who discovered the bear in the 1860s. Prior to that, it was virtually unheard of outside of China.
The bears are no longer targeted by hunters, but the species is threatened by human activity. Deforestation has fragmented habitat space, making it difficult to breed and leading to food shortages.
About 99% of a giant panda's diet is comprised of several bamboo varieties that bloom throughout the year. Unlike other bears, this species remains active during the winter months.
If even one bamboo variety is destroyed through deforestation, a panda can face months with little to no food.
Aside from a dependence on bamboo, the birth rate for this species is low.
At best, a female can have between 1 to 2 cubs per year -- but this is rare, because can only become pregnant about four days a year.
Is breeding pandas in captivity worth it?
Chinese officials remained convinced that captive breeding programs are essential to ensure the survival of the giant panda.
The Chengdu Panda Base was established in 1987 to address this problem. Since then, the research and conservation facility has welcomed the birth of 124 pandas, 83 of which have survived.
But is this necessarily a good thing?
It has been argued that breeding programs help boost awareness -- but others say resources are being wasted.
Below is an excerpt from a recent article that appears on National Geographic Daily News.
The goal of most captive-breeding programs is to eventually reintroduce the animals back into China's bamboo forests. Although the pandas' range is mostly preserved, much of it is still fragmented in pieces, so that there are only a few large continuous tracts where the animals can roam freely.
So far, scientists have attempted two reintroductions of captive-bred pandas into Sichuan Province: Xiang Xiang, who died in 2007 after being beaten up by wild resident males in Wolong, and Tao Tao, who's been living in the Liziping Nature Reserve since 2012.
Pandas that live in captive-breeding facilities outside China are on loan, and their offspring is returned to China.
"I think these programs have been going on long enough that we should see more progress made," [ethologist Marc Bekoff] said.
"It's almost like: Breed and pray that something works out."
Bekoff believes that no more captive pandas should be born, and that existing animals should be put in refuges out of the public eye, since it's unknown what kind of stress they endure due to such exposure, he said.
What you can do to help
- Adopt a panda through a reputable organization like the WWF.
- Be an eco-tourist. You can help curb deforestation and keep your carbon footprint at bay by choosing environmentally-friendly options when travelling abroad. The WWF offers some tips on how to be an eco-tourist.
- Inspire others. The Toronto Zoo, for example, is recruiting volunteers to interact with visitors to its panda exhibit.
Next Week, we'll be taking a look at the amur tiger -- a critically endangered species that resides in eastern Russia and northeastern China.