The giant panda has an insatiable appetite for bamboo. A typical animal eats half the day—a full 12 out of every 24 hours—and relieves itself dozens of times a day. It takes 28 pounds of bamboo to satisfy a giant panda's daily dietary needs, and it hungrily plucks the stalks with elongated wrist bones that function rather like thumbs. Pandas will sometimes eat birds or rodents as well.
Wild pandas live only in remote, mountainous regions in central China. These high bamboo forests are cool and wet—just as pandas like it. They may climb as high as 13,000 feet to feed on higher slopes in the summer season.
Pandas are often seen eating in a relaxed sitting posture, with their hind legs stretched out before them. They may appear sedentary, but they are skilled tree-climbers and efficient swimmers.
Giant pandas are solitary. They have a highly developed sense of smell that males use to avoid each other and to find females for mating in the spring. After a five-month pregnancy, females give birth to a cub or two, though they cannot care for both twins. The blind infants weigh only 5 ounces at birth and cannot crawl until they reach three months of age. They are born white, and develop their much loved coloring later.
Improved conservation efforts and better survey methods show an increase in the wild panda population. Hundreds more pandas live in breeding centers and zoos, where they are always among the most popular attractions. Much of what we know about pandas comes from studying these zoo animals, because their wild cousins are so rare and elusive.
Giant pandas are no longer an endangered species; they’re now considered "vulnerable" to extinction. The new designation was announced over the weekend by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an environmental organization that keeps track of the conservation status of plants and animals, according to The New York Times.
The status update is good news for the animals, but it doesn’t mean that pandas are safe. The IUCN says that in the next 80 years, climate change could destroy more than 35 percent of bamboo forests, where pandas live on a bamboo-only diet. That would definitely have consequences for their conservation.
"Whereas the decision to downlist the giant panda to vulnerable is a positive sign confirming that the Chinese government’s efforts to conserve this species are effective," the IUCN wrote, "it is critically important that these protective measures are continued, and that emerging threats are addressed."
Giant pandas — China’s national symbol — have been on the IUCN endangered list since 1990. But China has been aware of their decline since the 1960s, when the first panda reserves were established, according to the WWF. Since then, a combination of forest protection, reforestation, and strict laws against the killing of pandas allowed the panda population to recover. About 1,864 pandas live in the wild today, according to the latest survey — a 17 percent increase since 2004.
The animal’s new designation was announced alongside some negative news for other species. The eastern gorilla was moved from "endangered" to "critically endangered," as its population has declined by more than 70 percent in the past 20 years. And three species of antelope found in Africa were upgraded to "near threatened" from "least concern."
"Illegal hunting and habitat loss are still major threats driving many mammal species towards extinction," Carlo Rondinini, coordinator of the mammal assessment at Sapienza University of Rome, said in a statement. "We have now reassessed nearly half of all mammals. While there are some successes to celebrate, this new data must act as a beacon to guide the conservation of those species which continue to be under threat."