The giant panda requires 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 (which even-toed category includes the deer, the antelope, the camel and most of the domesticated farm animals less the horse, which is odd-toed.
Bamboo grows best as undergrowth in mixed, broadleaf and coniferous forests at an elevation of 1525 meters (1, 666 yards) to 3050 meters (3, 335 yards), though the giant panda has been known to live on mountain slopes as high as 3960 meters (4, 330 yards).
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). Here, the giant panda enjoys the cool, moist climate it prefers, 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, but instead is broken up into small patches, with human-related patches in between them. A phenomenon referred to by panda experts as "habitat fragmentation".
With the result that panda males have difficulty fertilizing the otherwise available panda females, and this, coupled with the fact that the female does not conceive easily, plus the fact that in the wild, only about half of infant pandas survive, have all added up to a severe threat to the panda's existence.
To the threats posed to the giant panda by humans can be added a few others in the form of natural enemies including roaming packs of feral dogs (i.e., domesticated dogs living in the wild), the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) – itself an endangered species.
So one might wish that more pandas, were they not so endearingly cuddly, could be produced in order to provide survival food for the very beautiful snow leopard – and the yellow throated marten (Martes flavigula), a threatened species itself belonging to the weasel family, all of which wild animals prey on infant pandas.
The infant panda is especially vulnerable when mother is away feeding, which she does several times daily, for 2-3 hours at a time, though for the first several days, mother panda will forego both food and drink in order to be available to the infant panda, who needs 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!
But by far, the greatest threat to the panda is us humans!
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 as panda's habitat.
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)– and if this process continues.
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.
Where The Giant Panda Live
The giant panda once occupied almost all of southwestern to southeastern China (even in these areas' lowlands, though 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 and Gansu Provinces (though the Minshan Mountain reserve is mostly confined to Sichuan Province), and in the part of the Qinling Mountains that lies in Shaanxi Province.
In addition, 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 at Mount Futou, located on the northern perimeter of the city of Chengdu, Sichuan Province.
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, and Ocean Park, Hong Kong, the gigantic amusement park situated on the southern shore of Hong Kong Island, just east of the Aberdeen Channel and the uninhabited island, Ap Lei Pai.
In China, the giant panda can also be seen at the Beijing Zoo , Shanghai Zoo , Guilin Seven Star Park Zoo, and Taipei Zoo, city of Taipei, Taiwan, outside of China, the giant panda can be seen in the following zoos (some of which have successful breeding facilities):
Adventure World, city of Shirahama, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan,
The Oji Zoo, city of Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan, and
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 and which, as the name suggests, are intended for the night viewing of nocturnal animals.
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, and
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, and
The Edinburgh Zoo, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK.
An Unlikely Vegetarian
Impact from Human
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 meet the bamboo, they would probably eat it, but the elephant generally lives in warmer climes).
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.
Plant fiber is rich in cellulose, which requires specific microbes to break it down. It is obviously there were some early pandas who were able to do this (in the beginning, the panda probably added bamboo to its diet only as a supplement).
Why Eating Bamboo
Those pandas that could better tolerate bamboo apparently won out, in a survival-of-the-fittest sense, 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 diet that has had a defining influence on both the physical appearance of the panda as well as on its behavior. The bamboo diet has obviously determined the panda's habitat (the panda must live within easy access to bamboo forests), but less obviously.
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 – simply 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 (think: logging and land clearing for the purpose of pasture land and/or crop farming, but also the poaching of the panda itself, either for food or for sale as an exotic animal).
Today, only a handful of bamboo species remain – and 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, since, when a bamboo species regenerates (each species of the bamboo plant goes through its own separate synchronous cycle of flowering, death and regeneration).
That particular species is, for an extended period of time, no longer available to the panda, which means that a panda must always have recourse to a backup bamboo species in order to sustain itself (in practice, it dines on as many species as are readily available, but requires at a minimum two).
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 fiber 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 (melting snowpack ensures runoff at lower altitudes year round).
The panda sits when eating, with its outstretched hind legs in front of it, a position that most adult human would find uncomfortable, since it provides little support for the lower back (crossing the legs immediately puts a sway in the lower back, protecting it from the stress of having to balance the upper torso).
The giant panda spends from 12-16 hours daily in eating and foraging for food, consuming, in the process, from 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, just as, in the old days in any case, we humans would eat "seasonal" vegetables (today, summer produce is available everywhere even in the dead of winter, for it is grown intensively in warmer climes, then flown to the supermarkets of the cold north where it fetches a premium over the normal price).
From summer through autumn (this is the monsoonal period, with occasional torrential rains), when the plant's leaves are available, the panda will concentrate on these, while in winter, when the leaves are gone (snow and hail occur frequently at this time), all that is left are the bamboo plant's stems.
At that time of year, will have become quite tough, but that's the tough life of a panda in the wild! In the spring, before the bamboo plant's leaves spring forth, there are plenty of the panda’s favorite foods on offer: fresh new bamboo shoots, which the panda will gorge itself on like the gourmand that it is!
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 (uh, and lumbers off to the toilet on occasion!), but in periods of 3-4 hours at a time at the most.