Posted on 08 June 2004
Facts about WWF's most symbolic flagship species - the Giant Panda
Giant pandas are found only in China. They were once widespread in southern and eastern China and in neighbouring Myanmar and North Vietnam. Today there are confined to temperate forest scattered across six mountain ranges in southwestern China: Minshan, Qinling, Qionglai, Liangshan, Daxiangling, and Xiaoxiangling. These forests are some of the most biologically rich temperate areas on Earth.
Giant pandas are biologically unique. They are closely related to bears and have the digestive system of a carnivore, but they have adapted to a vegetarian diet and depend almost exclusively on bamboo as a food source. Not designed to process plant matter, the panda's digestive system cannot easily break down the cellulose in bamboo, so pandas must eat huge amounts – as much as 83 pounds or about 40 kg, eating for up to 14 hours, each day.
Pandas are erroneously believed to be poor breeders, an impression rooted in the disappointing reproductive performance of captive pandas. Wild panda populations involved in long-term studies are known to have reproductive rates comparable to those of some populations of American black bears, which are thriving.
Unlike other bears, pandas do not hibernate.
At birth, panda cubs weigh only about as much as a quarter-pound stick of butter (90-130 grams) and have little fur. Adults can weigh more than 220 pounds. A panda's average life span is 20-25 years in the wild and up to 30 in captivity.
Habitat loss and fragmentation are the most pressing threats to the giant panda. Large areas of natural forest have been cleared for agriculture, timber and fuel wood.
Because of China’s dense human population, many panda populations are isolated in narrow belts of bamboo no more than 1,000-1,200 meters in width. Panda habitat is continuing to disappear as settlers push higher up the mountain slopes.
Across the panda's range, habitat is fragmented into more than 20 isolated patches. Within these patches, a network of nature reserves provides protection for more than half of the panda population. Because pandas cannot migrate between these far-flung habitat blocks, they have less flexibility to find new feeding areas during periodic bamboo die-off episodes.
Small, isolated populations also face a greater risk of inbreeding, which can lead to reduced resistance to disease, less adaptability to environmental changes and reproductive problems.
Some poaching of pandas still occurs, and even low levels of poaching can have grave consequences for such an endangered species. In recent years, several panda pelts being sold for large sums have been confiscated, but there is little information about the dynamics and dimensions of this market. Pandas are also unintentionally injured or killed in traps and snares set for other animals, such as musk deer and black bears.
WWF’s Work with Pandas
In 1979, WWF was invited by the Chinese government to collaborate in panda conservation, becoming the first international conservation organization to work in China. In 1980, Dr. George Schaller began the first-ever intensive research program on wild panda ecology and behavior, carried out for WWF in collaboration with Chinese scientists.
In 1997, WWF initiated a community-based conservation program in Pingwu County, Sichuan Province, home to the largest concentration of pandas in China. The program teaches local people how to protect panda habitat without compromising their economic livelihood, by training them in sustainable logging methods, introducing new income-generating activities like ecotourism and raising local awareness about conservation.
In the past six years, WWF has trained more than 300 panda reserve staff and local government officials in nature reserve management, wildlife monitoring, anti-poaching patrolling and innovative community-based conservation approaches.
One of the major milestones of the first decade of cooperation between WWF and China’s State Forestry Administration was the creation of the "National Conservation Management Plan for the Giant Panda and Its Habitat" in 1992. The plan called for additional nature reserves, improvements in existing reserves and migratory corridors to reconnect isolated populations. By the end of 2003, the Chinese government had established 40 panda reserves, protecting 1,040,000 ha and about 45% of the total giant panda habitat.