Among the rarest animals in the world, the giant panda is listed as endangered in the World Conservation Union's (IUCN's) Red List of Threatened Animals. Only between 600 to 3,000 pandas now survive in the wild—distributed among a few mountain ranges in Central China. In addition, about 150 captive pandas live in zoos and breeding facilities, mostly in China.
Pandas once lived in China's lowland forests. But the conversion of these lowlands into farms and cities to support China's population of about 1.3 billion people forced the shy, reclusive panda higher up into the mountains.
The difficulties of protecting pandas were underscored by a study published in 2001 showing that panda habitat is being destroyed more quickly inside China's Wolong Nature Reserve—home to about 10 percent of the wild pandas—than in adjacent, unprotected areas. This habitat destruction is caused in part by panda-related tourism.
In addition, because the panda's plush black-and-white fur is prized on the black market, pandas are vulnerable to poaching and smuggling.
The panda's survival is further complicated by its dependence on bamboo, which is harvested for livestock food, and used to produce varied products, from musical instruments to medicines. In addition, the cycle of bamboo growth involves massive periodic die-offs. To survive a die-off in any particular area, pandas must move to non-impacted areas. However, such migrations are now sometimes obstructed by the shrinkage and fragmentation of panda habitat.
Look but don't touch: Pandas get their cute appearance from their large, round heads, which are topped by black, musketeer-like ears, their oval eye patches, and their rolley-polley bodies. But despite their cherubic charm, pandas—like all bears—can be dangerous to people.
Designed to be tree-huggers: With its whooly, water-proof coat, the panda can stay warm and dry, and with its black-and-white coloring, the panda can stay camouflaged in the shadowy, sun-speckled and sometimes snowy terrain of China's temperate bamboo forests.
Monotonous meals: Bamboo accounts for 99 percent of a wild panda's diet. But pandas are, in fact, carnivores; they also eat grasses, occasional small rodents or musk deer fawns.
Thumbs up for bamboo: The panda grasps and holds bamboo to its mouth with its enlarged wrist bone, which acts as a thumb, along with its five digits. The panda chews the plant with its strong jaw muscles and large, crushing molars (which contribute to the panda's facial roundness).
Lazy days: An adult panda must eat about 28 pounds of bamboo per day to fulfill its nutritional needs. The ceaseless search and consumption of this large amount of food consumes most of the panda's waking hours.
Awake through winter: Pandas do not hibernate, as do other bears.
Few natural predators: A wayward panda cub may get picked off by a snow leopard or a pack of wild dogs. But an adult panda has few natural enemies besides humans.
Reproducing in pandatoriums: China maintains a network of nature reserves for pandas as well as facilities where captive pandas are bred via artificial insemination. In addition, China loans pairs of pandas to other countries. A panda pair on loan from China to The San Diego Zoo produced a baby in 1999 and another pair on loan to The National Zoo in Washington DC produced a baby in 2005.
—Lily Whiteman, NSF
This report is provided by the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, in partnership with U.S. News and World Report.