Unlike hundreds of mammals that have become extinct through the Earth's climate changes and topographical upheavals, the panda bear has endured. At one time, pandas inhabited a domain that stretched through China, Vietnam, Laos and Burma. In years since, human interruption has denuded the panda's habitat down to a few government sanctioned preserves. Today, researchers indicate pandas number in less than 1,000.
The panda's natural habitat now lies in three of China's provinces: Sichuan, where 80 percent of the world's pandas now live, Gansu and Shaanxi. This Chinese mountainous area is known as the "bamboo belt." It is a strip of bamboo forests that sits 5,900 to 12,500 feet above sea level, and spans 2,500 square miles. The panda is a vegetarian bear who prefers to be alone and would never make human contact.
Deforestation is an ecological term used to describe the destruction of forest ranges for the sake of advancing civilization. China is a country that is 5 percent larger in area than the United States, but their population is four times as many people. With limited living space, towns and villages are crowding in on panda territory. The need for farmlands and rice patties has forced the panda into the remaining forested mountain range. Chopping bamboo, the panda's primary food source, for commerce is another example of forest destruction, driving the panda away from where it once fed freely.
China's Fragile Forests
A short intestinal tract (30 feet as opposed to a cow's at 160 feet) means the panda must eat continuously. Scientists predict pandas eat 66 pounds of bamboo per day. One of the panda's feeding habits is also a form of deforestation. Pandas prefer to eat the rich, tender stalks of baby bamboo shoots, destroying the forest before it even gets started. Researchers blame climate change as the No. 1 reason panda's numbers have diminished. Following climatic disturbances, habitat loss from deforestation, genetic isolation and poaching are to blame.
The plight of the panda is diminishing thanks to China's earnest efforts and a global appreciation of the bear. Worldwide, countries are joining China's fight to save its national treasure with zoological breeding programs. Globally, world markets are minimizing the demand for bamboo products. These individualized efforts are beginning to counter the detriments to the pandas, and the research and statistics are promising.
- San Diego Union Tribune: The Panda Paradox/Refusal to Import Shun Shun May Prove Deadly
- Smithsonian Hankbook: Mammals; Judith Clutton-Brock
- The Giant Panda; Judith Jandal Presnall
- World Wildlife Fund: Giant Panda
- Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Getty Images