Loss and fragmentation of habitat due to deforestation, farming, bamboo harvesting, medicinal herb collection, and other development are largely to blame for the giant panda’s uncertain future. Though this endangered species, with its distinctive black and white coat, was once common throughout China, Myanmar, and Vietnam, it is now restricted to a few dozen isolated patches of forest in Shaanxi, Sichuan, and Gansu provinces. Captive breeding and species protection are helping the panda recover, but fewer than two thousand still remain.
Like many other animals, the giant panda has a suite of distinctive features and adaptations that allow it to exploit its primary food source. Because bamboo is very low in nutrients and energy, the giant panda must forage constantly to sustain itself, eating twenty to eighty pounds of bamboo shoots each day. The giant panda grasps bamboo stalks with its highly specialized hand of five fingers and a “thumb,” a modified sesamoid wrist bone, and then uses its large molar teeth and powerful jaw to reveal the soft inner tissue within the tough, surrounding layers . To maximize its limited energy, the giant panda will limit its social interactions and avoid treacherous terrain and relies a slow metabolism and low body surface area to body volume.
But, such measures of energy conservation are futile when availability of bamboo is limited. Shortly after bamboo reaches maturity and produces seeds, it dies. Generally, the entire population of bamboo will flower and perish at the same time, forcing the giant panda to seek a new habitat. But, as humans encroach on such areas, there are fewer places for pandas to move, and starvation often results.
While the breeding cycle and slow growth of bamboo poses great challenges to conservation efforts, the giant panda itself also has a unique and troubling reproductive nature. Females generally give birth to only one cub that is dependent on the mother for its first two years; if twins are born, the mother will usually select the stronger one and allow the weaker one to die. This offspring dependency and low birth rate limits the rate at which the giant panda can increase its population size.
The needs of humans and other animals are often in conflict with one another. Since ancient times the fur of the giant panda has been the target of poachers. Despite efforts to reverse the decline of the giant panda in the mid twentieth century, illegal trade on the black market occurred frequently. Though the Chinese government declared an important ban in 1998 on logging (felling trees and cutting and preparing the timber for business), new revenue generating threats emerged, including mining, hydropower development and irresponsible tourism. To further stem the loss of money, illegal activities like poaching and collection of medicinal plants increased in some affected areas. As a result, the giant panda population was reduced dramatically, to much fewer than a thousand individuals.
But, there is hope—according to the World Wildlife Fund, by 2005, the Chinese government established over 50 panda reserves, protecting more than 2.5 million acres of giant panda habitat and 60 percent of the population. With increasing available habitat, a reduction in illegal logging and poaching, and community involvement, the giant panda numbers are thought to be increasing after years of a steady decline.
Drawing upon this success story, the Giant Panda now serves as an iconic species of the conservation movement.