Focus on the giant panda

This article was written in 2016 by Jérôme Pouille, the creator of the website "".

The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) was already known for millennia in the mysterious East when its existence was revealed to the Western world. For European scholars, the black and white bear remained a myth until March 1869, when Father Armand David, a French missionary and naturalist, discovered a copy in the south-western mountains of China.

Like its namesake the red panda, the giant panda belongs to the order of carnivores but during the evolution it turned to an herbivorous diet, almost exclusively composed of bamboo. These are easily accessible and available all year round, and this choice avoids the giant panda a food competition. It consumes all parts with seasonal preferences. In spring, for example, giant pandas love new bamboo shoots that have just come out of the ground, which are very nutritious. Depending on the opportunity, they can complete their meal with berries, eggs, or even charognes.

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The digestive system of the giant panda is not completely adapted to this diet so special for a carnivore. It digests only 17% of the bamboo it consumes and is therefore obliged to ingest large quantities, between 15 and 30 kilos per day depending on the season. Several characteristic adaptations have nevertheless been developed over the course of evolution: a digestive system lined with lubricating glands to facilitate the passage of bamboo, an adaptation of the skull to allow a significant chewing force, large, flattened molars to crush bamboo. Finally, and this is undoubtedly the most characteristic adaptation, the giant panda has to its forelimbs, just like the red panda, a kind of thumb opposable to the other fingers: It is called the sixth finger of the panda and it is actually a radial sesamoid bone bony outgrowth. It is used to seize the bamboo, peel it, peel it and bring it to his mouth.

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The giant panda usually weighs between 60 and 80 kg in nature; the larger ones can reach 110 kg. Females are usually smaller. In captivity, they weigh 80-130 kg. Their bodies measure 1.20-1.50 metres (head included). Its legs are covered with thick black hairs that ensure a stable gait especially on the snow. Its claws are sharp and they allow him to climb easily. It knows how to swim and it does not hibernate (bamboos are available all year round). In the wild, it rarely reaches the age of 20 years while in captivity, many exceed the 30 years.

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Its bi-coloring could be a protective color in dense forest or snow but also allows individuals to recognize themselves. Its thick coat is covered with a layer of oil on its surface which facilitates its movements in the dense forest and limits the loss of body heat and the penetration of moisture.

In turn classified with the red panda, then with the raccoons, or even in a family apart, the classification of the giant panda has been the subject of many scientific controversies. Today, it is confirmed and accepted by the scientific sphere that the giant panda belongs to the bear family (Ursidae).

The giant panda is a solitary animal. Males and females have their own territory and have little direct physical contact with each other outside reproductive periods or mother/youth relationships. They have an ano-genital gland that they use to mark olfactory and chemically their territory, using variable postures that they adopt to mark more or less high. Marking, which takes place throughout the year, is more frequent during the mating season. The same applies to voice communication, which is more developed and audible from March to May. Odorous marks and vocal signals allow to transmit very numerous information, they are highly individualized and act as business cards able for example to indicate the state of sexual receptivity of an individual or even the age and sex of the transmitter. For a solitary animal, this communication is crucial for the coordination and success of breeding efforts. Especially since the female only accepts the male 1 to 3 days a year, when she knows her peak of receptivity. Several males can compete for the same female, the more experienced winning first. Each male can mate with several females and one female can accept other males after mating with her favorite.

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After mating, individuals return to their solitary lives. The duration of gestation varies because the female experiences an embryonic diapause, a process in which the nucleus of the cell that will form the embryo floats more or less long in the uterus, before implanting. Scientists believe that this delay allows the cell to adapt to food and altitude variations in the panda area. The female will give birth to one or two young, very rarely three, in a den that she has previously arranged in the hollow of a tree or a cave. The cubs are usually born in August or September and the panda mother will raise only one of them, the others will die quickly, for lack of energy to be able to take care of more than one cub at a time. The baby panda weighs only about 120 grams, or only 1/900th of the weight of its mother, this is the biggest difference in mammals between the weight of the mother and her baby. Its pink body is covered with some short and sparse white hairs. Its eyes are closed and it is deaf. Its mother takes care of its tirelessly, breastfeeding it several times a day and does not eat. The cub is growing fast and at the age of six months it will look like an adult in miniature. On its first birthday, it weighs 20 to 30 kilos, feeds on bamboo and will remain with its mother until his 18 months or even until its 30 months, before settling in its own territory. It will not be a master until it is about 7 years old.

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Only 1,864 giant pandas remain in the wild today, in six large mountain ranges in central China, the Qinling Mountains in the Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, the Minshan Mountains in the Gansu and Sichuan provinces, and the Qionglai Mountains, Daxiangling, Xiaoxiangling and Liangshan in Sichuan Province. Thirty-three virtually isolated populations share a territory of 2,576,595 hectares, generally between 2,000 and 3,800 metres above sea level, on the southeastern foothills of the Tibetan Plateau in an ecosystem known as a “biodiversity hotspot”. for its ecological richness and threatened character.

The territory of the male, with an area of 6 to 7 km², can overlap that of one or more other pandas, male or female. The territory of the female is a little smaller and has a central area where the den is usually found. Pandas make seasonal migrations between their winter and summer habitats. They are active day and night with peaks of activity that depend on the territory where they live. They spend more than 50% of their time eating.

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Poaching, logging and massive deforestation, conversion of forests into agricultural land, expansion of cities, Unrestrained development of the Chinese population and associated development activities are the evils that have led in the past the last wild pandas to take refuge in a shrinking and fragmented habitat.

Habitat extirpation and fragmentation are the two threats that persist today and make it difficult for individuals to migrate, a natural process that is essential, especially in order to find a partner for reproduction and thus promote genetic exchanges, but also for young people who seek to establish their own territory after separation from their mother, or to search for alternative food sources in the case of bamboo death episodes, the almost exclusive food of the Chinese plantigrade.

Since the 1990s, China has made considerable efforts to protect its flagship species: creation of a network of natural reserves (67 to date) that correspond to portions of administratively protected habitat where human activities are controlled or prohibited. They protect two-thirds of wild pandas but only cover just over half of their habitat. In 1998, China introduced two programs that will give hope to the last wild pandas: the promulgation of a moratorium on deforestation and a program to convert farmland into forests.

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At the same time, in situ conservation programmes will be initiated, with support for sustainable community development, with the premise that it is only by effectively meeting the needs of local populations and encouraging sustainable development practices that the long-term survival of pandas can be expected. These projects, led by the Chinese government in cooperation with the Chinese branch of WWF, aim to provide local people with the means to engage in sustainable alternative lifestyles while increasing their incomes and reducing the impact on panda habitat of environmentally damaging activities such as poaching, logging, collecting medicinal plants, cutting wood for heating and cooking, or unsuitable farming methods. These innovative conservation projects are accompanied by education and training of communities and local government officials on environmental issues and conservation practices.

Protecting the giant panda habitat means protecting a unique, very rich ecosystem, housing hundreds of other animal and plant species under the panda’s umbrella. More than 10% of the world’s known mammal species live in China and 18% of them are endemic to China. To date, 179 species of mammals share the same habitat as the giant panda, or 32% of mammals living in China. There are also 565 bird species, 31 reptile species, 92 amphibian species and 132 fish species in the giant panda habitat.

© Jérôme POUILLE

Who am I ?

Ambassador of the giant pandas of Chengdu («Chengdu Pambassador» in English), here is the title that brought me to China, ancestral country of the black and white bear. As a panda ambassador, it is about knowing the species better, understanding what the threats are to it and its habitat, understanding how it is bred in captivity, research that mobilizes many Chinese and Western experts, but above all to pass on all this knowledge to as many people as possible, to raise awareness, to communicate, to explain, to educate on conservation.

I had the opportunity to share for three months the daily life of the keepers, veterinarians and scientists of the Chengdu research base on giant panda breeding (Chengdu research base of giant panda breeding), and then a world tour of zoos that display the giant panda in captivity where I was able to meet staff and conduct conservation education with the public.

Ambassador of the panda cause, I always have been. The information and news website that I created in 2002 ( is an illustration of this and contributes to the awareness of school children, enthusiasts, curious people and all those who want to discover the mystery of the big cat bear, as the Chinese call it. I am also the author of the recent brochure “Giant Pandas, Ambassadors of Conservation” and the photo book “Giant Pandas Around the World”.

© Jérôme POUILLE

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