Giant Pandas in China

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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.

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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. To complete their cute image, their 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.

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A young Giant Panda cub just four months old

Panda Origins

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. 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; it is possible that the Giant panda was named due to the superficially similar facial markings of the unrelated Red Panda . In China the bear goes by a variety of names including spotted bear and bamboo bear. The most common name used is dà xióng māo large bear cat or just bear-cat.

Where to see Pandas

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 in there 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.

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An adult Giant Panda eating bamboo

Diplomatic Pandas

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 ; Woolong 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. 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 Yáng guāng 'sunshine'. You can view 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.

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Giant Panda bear

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 are politically sensitive, the combination 团圆 tuán yuán means re-union - a hot topic between China and Taiwan.

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