A group of pandas munching on their breakfast of bamboo shoots—a staple of their diet—at the Canton (Guangzhou) Zoo. The panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), a highly endangered species, is native to the rainy bamboo forests in the isolated mountain uplands of Shaanxi, Gansu, and Sichuan. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
With only about 1,000 giant pandas left in the wild, this icon of Chinese nature is as rare as it is popular. The black-and-white animal’s natural habitat has receded to a minuscule mountain region in and near Sichuan, though it has become one of the most popular zoo attractions of modern times.
The panda, or giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), is a solitary bear-like animal native to the rainy bamboo forests in the isolated mountain uplands of Shaanxi, Gansu, and Sichuan between 1,200 and 3,400 meters above sea level. Their diet consists almost entirely of bamboo leaves, stems, and shoots; they occasionally eat other plants and even meat. Their Chinese name is da xiong mao (great bear cat ???). Pandas have a unique and distinct coloration: they have black fur on their ears, around their eyes and nose, on all of their legs, and across their shoulders; the rest of their bodies are white. Adults are typically 160–180 centimeters in length and 85–110 kilograms in weight. Their scientific classification, as either members of the bear or raccoon family, is still disputed. Pandas do not breed prolifically. They reach adulthood at age eight, and females are receptive to breeding only a few days per year. This, combined with habitat loss, are big factors in their declining numbers in the wild.
Pandas were mentioned in Chinese texts more than two thousand years ago, but they first became known to Western science only in 1869. Although historically pandas have been used as emissaries of good will and diplomacy for centuries, the People’s Republic notably employed “Panda Diplomacy” from the late 1950s to the early 1980s. The most well-known of these gestures was Mao Zedong’s gift of the famous panda pair Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling to U.S. president Richard Nixon after his historic diplomatic visit to China in 1972. The pair received over a million visitors in their first year in the U.S. National Zoo, making them arguably the most popular zoo attraction in history. But since the early 1990s, a series of international agreements have led to the “rental” of pandas to foreign countries for research purposes at a variable fee of around $1 million per year. The proceeds go to panda conservation and repopulation efforts in China.
Today there are an estimated six hundred to one thousand pandas in the wild, and they are highly endangered because of dwindling habitat caused by logging and forest clearance. In 2006 the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries, an aggregate of seven preserves in southwest Sichuan province, were added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site list. Pandas, because of their rarity and distinctive appearance, have long been considered a Chinese cultural treasure and symbol.
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