The giant panda is a medium-sized black-and-white bear that lives only in the mountainous temperate forests of southwest China. Giant pandas eat a diet of bamboo. The giant panda is one of the most endangered animals on Earth. Only about 1,600 of these rare bears are left. This number includes more than 160 pandas living in zoos and breeding centers around the world, mostly in China. Giant pandas live in a few isolated mountain ranges in the provinces of Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu in south-central China. They live in broadleaf and coniferous forests with a dense understory of bamboo, at elevations between 1,500 m and 3,000 m. Torrential rains, dense mists, and heavy cloud cover characterize these forests throughout much of the year. The giant panda has lived in bamboo forests for several million years.
Giant pandas stand 1 m tall at the shoulder (on all four legs) and are 1.5 m long. Males are larger than females, weighing up to 115 kg in the wild. Females rarely reach 100 kg. Giant pandas have a very specialized anatomy linking them to bamboo for survival. Their front paws are specially designed to allow them to hold bamboo stalks. Giant pandas appear to have thumbs. But these "thumbs" are really extensions of the wrist bone. To hold a piece of bamboo, a panda wraps its fingers around one side of the stalk. Then it holds it in place by pushing the wrist bone, or pseudo-thumb, forward.
Female giant pandas can become pregnant only once a year in the spring. Barking calls and scents draw males and females to each other. Females give birth between 95 and 160 days after mating. Females may give birth to two young pandas, but usually only one survives. A mother panda takes gentle care of her tiny cub. In the wild, cubs stay with their mothers until they are two to three years old. The bodies of newborn giant panda cubs are completely pink with a sparse covering of white hair. Giant pandas are not giants when they are born. Their eyes are closed, like a kitten, and they weigh only 120-175 g. They are around 15 cm long - about the size of a hotdog!.
Giant pandas are tiny and helpless when they are born. Notice the tail. Adult pandas also have a tail, but it is smaller compared to its body size. After one week, dark patches begin to appear near the eyes and ears. Then the skin on their legs and backs begins to darken. Soon, black hair will grow in these areas and white hair everywhere else. Baby pandas’ eyes open when they are about one month old. They begin to crawl when they are three to four months old.
Giant pandas are cubs until they are about two years old. Like all bears, they start to explore the world outside the den once they are strong enough to follow their mother’s lead. Giant panda mothers spend most of the time looking for bamboo shoots, stems, and tender leaves. Young giant pandas use this time to learn about the forest and to climb trees. Cubs love to climb, and they quickly become very skilled. They have sharp, strong claws on both their front and back feet. Cubs may stay with their mothers for up to three years before striking out on their own.
In China, people and giant pandas have been living together for thousands of years. But China’s human population has been steadily growing. It is now the largest in the world. More people means more land is needed for farming. It also means more forests are cut for wood to build and heat houses. Loss of habitat in lowland areas has forced pandas to live only in the mountains.
People are trying to help the giant panda survive by creating protected areas and breeding centers. China has 37 official areas for protecting the giant panda. All of these areas are in mountainous southwestern China. The Wolong Nature Reserve is one of the most famous.