The emblem of the World Wildlife Fund ➚ is the undeniably cute Giant Panda of China. This is one reason why so many people wish to see Giant Pandas when visiting China.
Once much more widespread, the Panda is now restricted to remote mountainous terrain in Sichuan; Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces. The panda is vegetarian and eats only a few species of fairly indigestible bamboo. To keep up energy levels vast amounts of bamboo need to the eaten, about 50 pounds [23 kgs], every day. After decades bamboo flowers and then dies, and this event sometimes can cause pandas to starve to death as the bamboo flowers at the same time over a large area. It lives a solitary life, meeting up only briefly for mating. For many years the mating behavior was not fully understood and this led to great difficulty in breeding them in captivity. For this reason artificial insemination is often used for fertilization and the cubs are then raised by hand. Unusually for mammals they remain totally dependent on their mothers for over a year. The young cubs are born blind and unable to move. The captive breeding program has raised enough panda cubs to allow them to be released back into the wild as well as sent to zoos across the world.
About the same size as the American black bear they reach 220 pounds [100 kgs] (males 250 pounds [113 kgs]) in weight. Some years ago their status as a member of the bear family was in dispute, it was thought that they might be more closely related to raccoons and the red panda. However, DNA tests have shown the panda is indeed a member of the bear (Ursidae) family with the Spectacled Bear ➚ one of its closest relatives. Remains of a now extinct ancestor, the Dwarf Panda ➚ have shown that pandas evolved in isolation over millions of years. The name used in English 'panda' has an unknown origin; the Giant panda was named due to superficially similarities to the unrelated Red or Lesser Panda ➚. For the period 1820-1869 the red panda was the only panda known; it lives in mountainous Nepal and is mainly nocturnal living on bamboos and berries. It hisses and spits like a cat. In China the giant panda goes by a variety of names including white bear, spotted bear and bamboo bear. The most common name used is 大熊猫 dà xióng māo large bear cat or just bear-cat.
The Pandas do not appear much in Chinese historical records. There is a possible reference to a 'white bear' in 621CE when 70 skins were presented to the Emperor. It is very unlikely that these 'white' bears were polar bears and names were rather variable at the time. The next mention comes much later during the Qing dynasty when the local tribes on the Tibet/Sichuan border area presented bear skins as tribute to the Emperor. Fortunately for the panda the fur is too coarse to make nice coats and was used as for bedding and rugs. It also seems that their meat was not tasty so they were not hunted for food. The fact that they lived in such remote and mountainous terrain among independently minded tribes explains why they escaped mention. It was the great French naturalist and missionary Père David ➚ who brought them to European attention in 1869. At first he considered them a new species of bear but later bowed to analysis of teeth and bone structures to place them in the same group as the Red Panda; it was then commonly known as the Giant Panda. Science has now proven his initial 'bear' category correct.
Woolong Reserve ➚ 25 miles [40 kms] west of Chengdu, Sichuan is the best known reserve. In total there are about 270 pandas in captivity and somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 in the wild; they are rarely seen as they inhabit dense bamboo thickets and are spread out very thinly over large areas. Wanglang Nature Reserve 186 miles [300 kms] north of Chengdu is one place they live, but are unlikely to be seen.
Their iconic status has made pandas an important pawn in international politics. There are currently 44 pandas in eleven countries: Mexico; Spain; USA; Singapore; Austria; France; UK; Japan; Thailand; Taiwan and Australia. In China there are pandas at Beijing; Shanghai; Hong Kong and in Sichuan at Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding ➚; Wolong ➚ and Chengdu Zoo ➚.
The first panda to achieve international fame was Chi-Chi (姬姬 Jī jī 'princess') who lived in London zoo from 1958 to 1972. An effort to breed with Moscow zoo's An An in the late 1960s was unsuccessful. It was the popularity of Chi-Chi at London that led the World Wildlife Fund ➚ to adopt the bear as their emblem. Both Chi-Chi and An-An died in 1972. China gave two replacement pandas to London Zoo in 1974 Chia Chia (female) and Ching Ching (male). They failed to mate and Ching-Ching died in 1985, Chia-Chia then went to Mexico zoo to try to mate with a single panda held there, but again failed. Their replacements in London Ming-ming and Bao-bao were an even worse choice as they fought with each other and eventually were sent back to China. The current deal is for a zoo to pay $1,000,000 a year to China to lease a panda. Edinburgh Zoo ➚ now has 甜甜 Tián tián 'sweetie' and 阳光 Yáng guāng 'sunshine'. You can admire them on Edinburgh's Giant Pandacam ➚. More recently the only surviving giant panda triplets were born in July 29 2014, and they have now been named: 萌萌 méng méng (adorable), 帅帅 shuài shuài(handsome) and 酷酷 kù kù (cool) they live at Chi me long Safari Park, Guangzhou.
The pair of pandas 团团 tuán tuán and 圆圆 yuán yuán caused a diplomatic stir when they were offered as a gift to Taiwan in 2008, as their names (chosen by public poll) were politically sensitive, the combination 团圆 tuán yuán means re-union - a hot topic between China and Taiwan.
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