Habitat - Shrinking
The giant panda lives today on the eastern rim of the mountainous Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in Southwestern China, specifically in the areas of the Minshan and Qinling Mountains (the provinces of Gansu-Sichuan and Shaanxi, respectively). There, giant pandas enjoy the cool, moist climate they prefer, since perennially dense (thick as clouds) mists are interrupted only by the occasional torrential rain in summer, while winters are snowy, with the occasional hailstorm.
Unfortunately, neither of these two mountainous areas forms a single, contiguous panda habitat. Instead it is broken up into small patches, with human-related patches in between them. A phenomenon referred to by panda experts as "habitat fragmentation".
Although the giant panda habitats in the Minshan Mountains area (Sichuan and Gansu Provinces) are larger, viewed collectively, fewer giant pandas live in these habitats – only about 45% of the total population of giant pandas living in the wild, in fact, live in the Minshan Mountains area. There are 27 giant panda reserves in the mountains area to protect them.
The remainder live in the much smaller geographical area of the Qinling Mountains of Shaanxi Province. The mountains channel rainwater into Yangtze River and Yellow River which are China’s mother rivers. The warm rains support a variety of animals and plants. This area is home to few hundred pandas and some other endangered species, like golden monkey.
Also read Giant Pandas, you will have learned everything you have ever wanted to know about pandas, like baby panda, places to see and even hug them, what they do every day, what they eat, and how to plan a tour to visit panda.
The giant panda feeds on bamboo, and bamboo requires a cool, moist climate. Therefore the panda, by extension, requires a cool, moist climate. Given the panda's stocky build with its thick fur, both of which are the result of having adapted to a diet of bamboo, the panda is dressed for a cool, moist climate but cannot thrive in a hot, dry climate.
The original, meat-eating panda probably resembled a more normal type of bear. Just as the original giraffe, before it adapted to dining off trees, probably resembled a more normal, even-toed ungulate, or hoofed animal. The even-toed category includes the deer, the antelope, the camel and most of the domesticated farm animals but not the horse which is odd-toed.
Bamboo grows best as undergrowth in mixed, broadleaf and coniferous forests at an elevation of 1525 metres (1, 666 yards) to 3050 metres (3, 335 yards), though the giant panda has been known to live on mountain slopes as high as 3960 metres (4, 330 yards).
The panda sits when eating, with its outstretched hind legs in front of it, spending from 12-16 hours daily in eating and foraging for food, consuming, in the process 12-15% of their body weight! If new bamboo shoots are available, the panda will typically concentrate on this food source, stuffing itself on up to 38 kilograms (84 lbs) of it in a single sitting! Otherwise the panda consumes about 13-15 kilograms (30-34 lbs) of a mixed "plate" of regular bamboo shoots and leaves.
The panda eats different parts of the bamboo plant depending on the season. Summer through autumn is the monsoonal period when the leaves are available and the panda will concentrate on these while in winter, when the leaves are gone all that is left are the stems.
At that time of year it is a tough life for a panda in the wild. In the spring, before the bamboo leaves spring forth, there is plenty of the panda’s favorite food available, e.g. fresh new bamboo shoots which the panda will gorge itself on.
As indicated above, the giant panda spends upwards of 2/3 of its day eating and foraging for food. The rest of the time, it either lazes around or slumbers in for periods of 3-4 hours at a time.
Why Eating Bamboo
The pandas that could tolerate bamboo better apparently won out, in a survival-of-the-fittest, with pandas relying more and more exclusively on bamboo, since the panda apparently had few if any competitors at the bamboo buffet.
As already indicated in the Bare Facts section, bamboo is a low-calorie food source that has had a defining influence on both the physical appearance of the panda as well as on its behaviour. The bamboo diet has obviously determined the panda's habitat and it must live within easy access to bamboo forests.
It has limited the panda's habitat to terrain that is not too steeply sloped even though the bamboo plant can easily survive on steep slopes because steeply sloped terrain would require greater exertion than the panda is capable of, at least on a sustained basis.
In earlier times, there could be up to 25 different bamboo species that were available to the panda in any given original habitat, but many of which have disappeared as humans have encroached on the bamboo's and panda's habitat and perhaps poaching of the panda itself, either for food or for sale as an exotic animal).
Today, only a handful of bamboo species remain. There are even fewer of them in the altitude range that suits the panda and this has also contributed to the threatened status of the panda.
The panda obtains most of its protein from the bamboo plant's leaves, but it needs the stems partly for the water they contain. The stem also contains protein, only in lesser amounts even if the high fibre content of the stems means that the panda must relieve itself up to 40 times a day.
Despite the high water content in the bamboo stem, it is not sufficient to fulfill the daily water requirements of the panda, therefore pandas must have access to rivers and streams, both of which, fortunately, there tend to be plenty of in the panda's habitat.
Places and Countries to See Giant Pandas
The giant panda once occupied almost all of southwestern to southeastern China (even the lowlands of these areas. This seems counterintuitive, given the panda's "dress", as well as parts of neighboring Burma (Myanmar) and Vietnam. Two decades ago, the number of special reserves was a mere 13, and note that the subsequent increase in special reserves is not due to habitat fragmentation, in fact, just the opposite occurred.
Today, the giant panda lives in the wild in about 50 special reserves in the two aforementioned mountain ranges: in the part of the Minshan Mountains that straddles Sichuan
Provinces and in the part of the Qinling Mountains that lies in Shaanxi Province.
The giant panda lives in special breeding & research centers and in zoos throughout China and around the world. The special research & breeding centers of China are:
The Giant Panda Breeding Research Base in Chengdu
The Wolong National Nature Reserve, Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, Wenchuan County, Sichuan Province, located about 140 kilometers northwest of Chengdu along the north-south oriented (here) National Highway G213, near the intersection with the east-west oriented National Highway G317,
The Bifengxia Panda Base, city of Ya'an, Sichuan Province, located about 140 kilometers southwest of the city of Chengdu.
Ocean Park, Hong Kong, the gigantic amusement park situated on the southern shore of Hong Kong Island.
In China, the giant panda can also be seen at the Beijing Zoo , Shanghai Zoo , Panda Room in Chongqing Zoo, Guilin Seven Star Park Zoo, and Taipei Zoo, city of Taipei, Taiwan.
Other Countries to See Pandas
Outside of China, the giant panda can be seen in the following zoos (some of which have successful breeding facilities):
Asia Adventure World, city of Shirahama, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan;
The Oji Zoo, city of Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan.
River Safari, Singapore, a new river-theme zoo situated in between the Singapore Zoo and Night Safari, the latter being one of a string of special nocturnal zoos in Southeast Asia and India.
The Adelaide Zoo, city of Aidelaide
The Chapultepec Zoo, Mexico City, Mexico;
The San Diego Zoo, San Diego, California, USA;
The Memphis Zoo, city of Memphis, Tennessee, USA;
Zoo Atlanta, city of Atlanta, Georgia, USA;
The US National Zoo, Washington, DC, USA.
The Schönbrunn Zoo (Tiergarten Schönbrunn), aka Vienna Zoo, Vienna Austria;
The Madrid Zoo (Zoo Aquarium de Madrid), Madrid, Spain;
The Berlin Zoological Garden (Zoologischer Garten Berlin), Berlin, Germany;
The Edinburgh Zoo, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK.
On the positive side, thanks to human intervention, pandas are multiplying in captivity and are being released into the wild (the giant panda population of the Shaanxi Province/ Qinling Mountains area has increased by more than 10% in the past 20 years, according to WWF figures). More and more patches of human-related habitat are being reclaimed the panda.
The most recent initiative in this regard being the creation of corridors, also known as Green Corridors, which connect the otherwise isolated patches of panda habitat. The total giant panda habitat of the Shaanxi Province/ Qinling Mountains area, including the Green Corridors, has increased by 80%, according to WWF figures.
In a not-too-distant future, the panda may be removed from the endangered species list, even though it will remain on the threatened species list for years and years to come, especially if climate change poses unforeseen, adverse effects on the panda's habitat.
Panda males have difficulty fertilizing the otherwise available panda females. Coupled with the fact that the female does not conceive easily, and the fact that in the wild, only about half of infant pandas survive, it adds up to a severe threat to the panda's existence.
Besides the threats posed to the giant panda by humans, a few others can be added as natural enemies. This includes roaming packs of feral dogs (i.e., domesticated dogs living in the wild) and the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) which itself is an endangered species.
Whereas one might wish that more pandas could be produced in order to provide survival food for the very beautiful snow leopard – and the yellow throated marten (Martes flavigula), another threatened species itself belonging to the weasel family, all of which prey on infant pandas.
The infant panda is especially vulnerable when its mother is away feeding, which she does several times daily, for 2-3 hours at a time. However for the first several days, the mother panda will forego both food and drink in order to be available to the infant panda. Its needs are to suckle almost all day long, for up to a half hour at a time, and with less than an hour between the end of one feeding session and the beginning of the next!
However, the greatest threat to the panda is the human threat!
Impact from Humans
Despite being a carnivore by nature, the giant panda gradually switched over to eating the bamboo plant ages ago, a plant that it shares with the red panda and a number of lemur types (certain rodents eat bamboo roots, and where elephants might encounter the bamboo, they would probably eat it, but the elephant generally lives in warmer climates).
Humans eat bamboo shoots, but it is not certain that our forefathers ate enough of them to threaten the panda's prime place at the bamboo buffet.
The plant fibre is rich in cellulose, which requires specific microbes to break it down. It is obvious there were some early pandas who were able to do this when the panda probably added bamboo to its diet only as a supplement.