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Life & Survival for the giant pandas

  

The giant panda has been called a living fossil, a relic of glacial age. Distributed almost in the north and northwest of Sichuan are 1600 or so giant pandas surviving in the wild. Once these animals- peculiar to China- may have been spread throughout the southwestern provinces as far north as Hebei. Living at high altitudes in mountainous regions, this endangered mammal is shrouded as much by mystery as by perpetual mist and cloud. Sightings are rare and our knowledge remains scant.

 

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Some sources claim that the giant panda has existed for around 600,000 years while others date earliest remains of the panda back as far as the ice age, between one and three million years ago. Scientists have spent over a century debating whether pandas belong to the bear family, the raccoon family, or a separate family of their own.

 

As good climbers and solitary animals, pandas are adept at evading observation. The chances of a casual visitor seeing a panda in its natural habitat are virtually nil. The giant and lesser pandas are both rather shy. Yet despite their shy nature, the panda has been popularized as the emblem of World Wide Fund for Nature and was once a popular present from the Chinese government to foreign governments. While Chinese literature has references to pandas going backing over 3000 years, it wasn’t until 1869 that the West found out about the pandas, when a French missionary, Jean Pierre Armand David, brought a pelt back with him to Paris. The first giant panda seen in the West was taken to a United States zoo in 1936. Now in the 21st century, this stout, pigeon-toed animal is racing towards extinction unless their natural habitat of bamboo forest can be saved.

 

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The Chinese name for the giant panda is daxiongmao, or ‘big bear cat’. It is indeed both bear-like and cat-like, a barrel-shaped bundle which pads quietly through the cool damp mountains that are its habitat. A full grown giant panda might be about one and a half meters (five feet) in length, weighing some 160 kilograms (350 pounds).Cover thickly all over with cream- white fur marked with black on the ears, limbs, the shoulders and around the eyes, it is one of the most distinctive of mammals. The lesser and red panda, a smaller creature which resembles a raccoon, seem altogether less attractive and loveable.

 

Although endowed with the digestive system of carnivores, giant pandas move far too ponderously to catch game. A certain type of high-altitude bamboo is what they seem to like best, but they can digest only a fraction of their food, and to extract the nourishment they need to consume as much as 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of the stems and leaves a day. Their daily routine consists of foraging for several hours, taking a nap, and walking to forage again. In the spring months they will descend from above 3000 meters (10,000 feet) where the arrow bamboo thrives, to a lower elevation where the umbrella bamboo is just putting forth its tender shoots, another panda delicacy. So fastidious is the giant panda that it will not forage in areas where forest have been felled, scorning the kind of bamboo that grows there for its thin stems and poor quality.

 

 Powerful front legs and paws first tear apart the bamboo, and massive jaws and broad molars then make short work of it. With a special wrist bone formation on each front paw which functions as a sixth digit, the giant panda is remarkably dexterous in manipulating the stems of bamboo.

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It is rather less efficient at reproducing itself, though. Giant pandas tend to be solitary except during the short mating season in spring. A female panda will bear one offspring at most every two or three years. Gestation takes about four or five months. Usually only one cub is born, weighing about as much as an apple; if there are two, one is abandoned since the mother cannot care for both at the same time. The birth will take place in the hollow of a tree or a concealed cave. A new born panda is hairless and tiny, and spread its first month being carried by its mother until its warmly furred and release into the nest. At 18 months or so it is able lead an independent life.
          
Pandas are threatened by their exclusive eating habits. They consume enormous amounts of food-up to 20kg a day each- with bamboo accounting for around 95% of their diet. They spend 10 to 16 hours a day munching on it, but will only eat around 20 of China’s 300 species of bamboo. In the mid-1970s more than 130 pandas starved to death when of this favored species flowered and withered in Min Shan, Sichuan.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty faced by conservationists is the panda slow the productive rate. Pandas remain solitary throughout the year, except during their short, three-month mating season each spring. Then pandas not only have a tricky time finding one another, they are also rather particular about who they’ll mate with.

Conservationists have had low success rates with breeding pandas in captivity. Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base has seen the birth of a number of pandas but still remains unable to multiply the population the level hoped for.

The government has set up 32 nature reserves in the southwest for the panda. Chinese laws now strictly forbid locals to hunt, fell trees or make charcoal in the habitats of the panda. Peasants in these areas are offered rewards equivalent to double their annual salary if they save a starving panda. And despite a constant battle with budget deficits, China’s central government maintains its funding to the breeding research base, which constitutes in its struggle to preserve pandas and their habitats. 

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The current situation of Giant Pandas
In the past ten thousand years, the development of human civilization continuous threatened the panda's natural habitat in a degree that the giant panda had to withdraw into the high mountains and deep valleys on the east edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.The miraculous survival of giant panda through the tremendous changes in the history of nature can be attributed to its withdraw from competition.

However, giant pandas are now in a very dangerous situation. From the 1950s till now, four-fifths of their habitat has disappeared, and only a little more than 10,000 square kilometers in more than 30 counties have remained. The population of giant pandas has decreased to approximately 1700, which is then divided into about 20 isolated groups. Because of this, there may be inbreeding, and a loss of genetic diversity of the species, thereby extinct one group by another. In addition, giant panda only eats bamboos; when the cyclical blossoming of bamboos happens, bamboos wither and pandas may die of starvation or sickness. In the 1970s and 1980s, bamboos of the Mingshan Mountain and Qionglai Mountain once have a large-scale blossoming, which caused a sharp decrease of panda population.

 

The current situation of Giant Pandas after the deadly 5.12 Earthquake ---“How are you? Cute baby”
The 5.12 Earthquake in 2008 happened to occur right where the natural habitat of the giant pandas is. 80% of the panda habitat is damaged and as much as 10% destroyed. The larger effect of the quake on the wild panda population is still unknown.With its low birthrate and small numbers – about 1596 wild pandas (the update numbers) are thought to live in the wild and only about 230 live in captivity -- the species' hold on survival is tenuous. The earthquake hit at the height of breeding season, and its path cut through the prime swath of wild panda habitat."
In Wolong, over 98% of the resident houses feel down, more than 5,000 Tibetan and Qiang people became homeless. Communication and transportation were broken off. Infrastructure sustained severe damage. The facilities of the giant panda scientific research were destroyed badly. Because of severe landslides, some of the giant pandas’ enclosures were buried and some ruined. The giant pandas’ hospital was in danger of collapse. Among the 63 pandas in the Garden, one was injured severely, one lightly, one missing and one dead. Now the new Giant Panda research center is still under construction.  

 

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