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Found only in China -- one of the world's fastest growing and most populated regions -- the giant panda clings to survival. Its misty mountain refuges lie in a region of unparalleled biodiversity whose forests are threatened by intense commercial exploitation. Myths about this remarkable animal abound, but the reality is that the giant panda is endangered for the same reasons that nature is imperiled throughout China, and indeed throughout the world. Human utilization of natural resources has exceeded sustainable limits, and habitat for wildlife is vanishing. Despite encouraging progress, China's conservation policies and actions still need to be strengthened to meet the enormous challenges of saving the giant panda.
As few as 1,000 of the black and white bear-like animals remain in the wild, all of which are confined to the mountainous bamboo forests of southwestern China. Pandas feed almost exclusively on the stems and leaves of bamboo. Hidden in the dense foliage of the forest, pandas feed almost continuously on the nutrient-poor bamboo, consuming 26-30 pounds in a 24-hour period.
Physical Characteristics: Pandas are robust, bear-like animals with a distinctive black and white coat. They have a head and body length of 120 to 150 cm, and weigh between 85 and 110 kg. Specialized physical features include broad, flat molars, modified for crushing, and an enlarged wrist bone functioning as an opposable thumb - both adaptations for eating bamboo stems.

Population & Distribution: Fossil evidence has demonstrated that the giant panda was once widespread in southern and eastern China and in neighboring Myanmar and North Vietnam. Today however, according to the last panda census in the mid-1980's, there may be as few as 1,000 giant pandas occupying about 13,000 km2 of habitat scattered across six mountain ranges in southwestern China. This diminishing range first occurred through climatic change, but in recent centuries this decline has been caused by increased human settlement. The species is now restricted to six isolated mountain ranges in the Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces along the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The remaining area of suitable panda habitat totals about 29,500 km2. Because most valleys are inhabited by people, many panda populations are isolated in narrow belts of bamboo, no more than 1,000-1,200 m in width. Panda habitat is continuing to disappear as settlers push higher up the mountain slopes.
Panda habitat falls within the Temperate Forests of Central China (the bamboo forest zone) between 1,100 m and 3,300 m, exceptionally as high as 4,000 m. Human cultivation and settlement determine the lower altitude limit. These temperate forests are one of the most biologically rich temperate areas on earth and one of WWF's priority ecoregions within the Global 200.
The panda roams around in a well-defined home range of between 3.9 and 12 km2. Though it was once believed that pandas lived a relatively solitary existence, new research from Shaanxi Province's Qinling Mountains now presents a different scenario. Far from living alone, it claims that pandas in Qinling live and travel in groups of at least two, and sometimes in groups of up to 28.
Diet: Giant pandas are biologically unique. Though they are closely related to bears and have a digestive system of a carnivore (they occasionally hunt for fish or small mammals), long ago they adapted to a vegetarian diet and unlike their omnivorous cousins, depend almost exclusively on bamboo as a food source. Not designed to process plant matter, the panda's digestive system cannot easily break down the cellulose in bamboo, so pandas must eat huge amounts - as much as 83 lbs., and for up to 14 hours, each day. This means the panda's survival is inextricably linked to constant access to good feeding areas.
Availability of bamboo is affected by two factors, one natural and one man-made. Bamboo flowers at regular intervals from ten to more than one hundred years depending on the species. After flowering it dies back and new seedlings emerge. It takes bamboo about a year to regenerate from seed, and up to 10 years before it can support a panda population. This cycle can create problems for pandas, since they are dependent on bamboo for food and their range keeps diminishing. A die-off of on species can reduce bamboo availability in large areas, but typically at least two species of bamboo are found in panda habitat. When one species is in short supply, pandas would normally switch to other species, or expand their home ranges to access areas where bamboo has not flowered. However, where panda habitat has been fragmented by human activity, migration to areas where bamboo is still plentiful can be obstructed. In the past, bamboo flowering has led to massive and ill-advised "rescue campaigns" for pandas said to be starving. It is now widely accepted that where habitat is intact and at least two species of bamboo are present, rescues are not necessary.
Furthermore, areas of panda habitat are being cut down for timber, agriculture, and other uses, ever shrinking their natural range, and making available bamboo inaccessible.

Reproduction: Long-term research in the Qinling Mountains, supported by WWF since 1985, has countered the stereotype of pandas as inept breeders. This impression is rooted in the disappointing reproductive performance of captive pandas. In Qinling the birth rate of wild pandas is comparable to that of bears, and while infant mortality is high, it is far lower than in captivity. Both sexes usually reach sexual maturity at 5.5 to 6.5 years, and after a very variable gestation period of 97 to 163 days pandas generally give birth to single young or sometimes twins; the reproductive rate is about one young every two years. Young pandas are fully weaned at 8 to 9 months, and leave their mothers at about 18 months. Female pandas in the wild usually give birth to a single cub once every two to three years between the ages of four and twenty. A cub stays with its mother for up to two years, reaching sexual maturity around the age of four.
Unlike other bears, pandas do not hibernate. Because of their short mating cycle, breeding pandas in captivity is difficult. At birth, panda cubs weigh only about as much as a quarter-pound stick of butter (90-130 grams) and have little fur. Adults can weigh more than 220 pounds. A panda's average life span is 10-15 years in the wild and up to 30 in captivity.
Habitat loss and hunting are the most pressing threats to the giant panda. Panda meat is unpalatable and hence little subsistence hunting occurs. Some poaching of pandas still occurs, and even low levels of poaching can have grave consequences for such an endangered species. Poachers and smugglers mistakenly believe they can cash in panda pelts for considerable sums, though there does not seem to be a market for them anywhere. Poaching is a risky business: panda poachers and smugglers have received death penalties or long prison terms for their crimes. Pandas are also unintentionally caught in traps and snares set for other animals, such as musk deer and bears. Although illegal, such snaring occurs inside as well as outside the reserve system.

Large areas of natural forest have been cleared for agriculture, timber and fuelwood. In Sichuan Province alone, habitat occupied by pandas shrank by 50% between 1974 and 1989. Across the panda's range, habitat is fragmented into more than 20 isolated patches. Because pandas cannot migrate between them, they have less flexibility to find new feeding areas during the periodic bamboo flowering and die-off episodes. Unable to disperse to other areas of suitable habitat in times of food shortage, and many have died of starvation. Bamboo die-off may however have been an important feature of the species' population dynamics, with enforced emigration promoting out-breeding and maintenance of a healthy population. The small, isolated populations of Giant Panda which remain may be threatened by in-breeding, which is liable to reduce reproduction rate, fertility and survival of young. Inbreeding can produce animals which have a reduced resistance to disease, less adaptability to environmental changes, and reproductive problems.
Pandas and Zoos: U.S. zoos that receive captive giant pandas from China have a critical role in and responsibility for conserving giant pandas in the wild. This responsibility is dictated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in its official policy on the import of giant pandas, finalized in 1998 after a 5-year moratorium on panda loans. According to the revised policy, more than half of the funds associated with a panda loan -- funds amounting to as much as $1 million per year -- must be channeled into conservation of wild giant pandas and their habitat. The moratorium was needed because previous loans had generated large profits for some zoos, a violation of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), while conferring no benefits whatsoever on giant pandas in the wild -- despite a requirement to do so under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Preventing a return to the problems of the past demands rigorous oversight of giant panda loans by the Fish and Wildlife Service, and conscientious wild panda conservation efforts on the part of the zoos.
Protecting pandas in their natural habitat is the indisputable highest priority in the conservation of this highly endangered species. There may be as few as 1,000 giant pandas left in the wild today, scattered across six isolated mountain ranges in south-central China. What will it take to save them? A new national survey, a massive initiative that got underway in 1998, will yield more accurate information about where the remaining strongholds for giant pandas are and what needs to be done to shore up key populations. China's network of more than 30 panda reserves needs to be extended and strengthened. Reserve staff need training in field monitoring techniques and nature reserve management. In some cases, inadequate infrastructure in the reserves is impeding effective conservation. Repairing impassable roads and providing four-wheel drive vehicles, for example, can enable reserve staff to patrol remote areas of the reserves for illegal hunting and logging.

These basic on-the-ground needs are crucial but costly. It is in covering these needs that zoos can make the most constructive impact on giant panda conservation. Through contributions of as much as a million dollars a year, zoos can make help make great strides in protecting wild pandas and give a powerful boost to China's panda reserve system. We strongly urge zoos to direct their resources to the most urgent priorities for conserving wild pandas and their habitat, and to consult broadly with panda conservation experts in China and the U.S. With nearly 20 years of hands-on experience in giant panda conservation in China, WWF looks forward to close cooperation and coordination with U.S. zoos that seek to import pandas in the future.

Current challenges: China has made great strides in conservation over the past decade. These days almost all technical staff within national and provincial governments' conservation agencies have a scientific education and some relevant training. The national government has taken an increasingly strong line on environmental protection, conservation, and sustainable development. Thanks to a new forest protection program launched in 1998, which includes a widespread ban on logging, virtually all panda habitat is now off-limits to timber harvesting. Public concern for environmental protection has increased dramatically, and numerous Chinese non-governmental groups have sprung up to promote conservation.

But the situation for the giant panda and China's other endangered wildlife is still dire. Habitat destruction and poaching remain the two most severe threats to the panda population and its habitat.

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