Iucn status Category: Endangered Ailuropoda melanoleuca

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Giant Panda IUCN Status Category: Endangered

Ailuropoda melanoleuca (David, 1869) CITES Appendix: I


Giant pandas are robust members of the bear family with a distinctive black and white coat. Their head and body length is 120 to 190 cm, and adults weigh 85 to 125 kg. Specialized features include broad, flat molars modified for crushing, and an enlarged wristbone functioning as an opposable thumb — both adaptations for eating bamboo. The giant panda’s diet consists almost entirely of the leaves, stems and shoots of various bamboo species; although they occasionally eat meat. A giant panda may consume 12 to 18 kg of bamboo a day to meet its energy requirements.

Giant pandas inhabit the bamboo forest zone between 1,200 m and 3,400 m. Formerly they were found in riverine valleys at lower elevations, but these areas are now settled by humans. Giant pandas are generally solitary, each adult having a well-defined home range. A male’s home range overlaps with those of several females. Although encounters are rare outside the brief mating season, pandas communicate fairly often mostly through vocalization and scent marking.

Giant pandas reach sexual maturity between 4.5 and 7.5 years. After a gestation period of about five months, females give birth to a single young or sometimes twins. Wild giant pandas bear a cub every two years or more. Newborns are tiny, weighing only 100 to 160 grams. Cubs start eating bamboo at about one year of age, but remain with their mother until she conceives again, usually when the cub is about 18 months old. Infant mortality in the wild is lower than in captivity, and is estimated at around 40%.

ossil evidence suggests that in the early Pleistocene, some 2-3 million years ago, ancestors of the giant panda were widely distributed over much of eastern and southern China as far north as Beijing. Panda fossils have also been found in northern Myanmar (Burma) and northern Vietnam. The giant panda's range has since contracted through climatic change, and in recent centuries, increasing human settlement. The species is now restricted to six isolated mountain ranges along the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau: Qinling in Shaanxi Province, Minshan in Gansu and Sichuan Provinces, and Qionglai, Xiangling and Liangshan in Sichuan Province. The remaining area of suitable habitat totals around 13,000km.2 Because most valleys are inhabited by people, many giant panda populations are isolated in narrow belts of bamboo, sometimes no more than 1,000-1,200 m wide. Panda habitat is continuing to disappear as clearance for agriculture and logging pushes ever higher up the mountain slopes.

Range State: China

Because giant pandas live in bamboo thickets on steep mountain slopes, counting them is difficult. Surveys in the 1980s gave an estimate of around 1,000 individuals in the wild, but that may have been an underestimate. There are now thought to be approximately 600 remaining, but a new survey started in 1999 should give a more accurate figure. So far, the Chinese government has established 33 panda reserves, which should give protection to about 60% of the giant panda populations.
Major population: On present evidence the greatest number of giant pandas occur in the Minshan Mountains, while the Qinling Mountains have the highest population density.
The main threats to giant pandas are habitat loss and fragmentation, and poaching. Their habitat has been severely reduced by logging and forest clearance for agricultural settlement. Geographic Information System (GIS) analysis and surveys done in the 1970s and 1980s revealed that the area occupied by giant pandas had been reduced from more than 29,500km2 to only about 13,000km2. Because individual giant panda populations in these fragmented forests are small, most may not be viable in the long term, and inbreeding in small populations is a potential problem. The Chinese government instigated a ban on commercial logging in natural forests in the southwest of the country in 1998, which is welcome news for giant pandas outside the reserves.
Pandas have a low reproductive rate and populations may take a long time to recover if individuals are killed. Although poachers are given severe penalties, some illegal hunting continues, although it is not as bad as it was in the 1980s. Many hunters set snares and traps for deer and other animals, especially musk deer, and incidental giant panda deaths have been documented.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, many giant pandas died in the Minshan and Qionglai Mountains following the flowering and die back of bamboo over wide areas. Bamboo die back is a natural phenomenon, occurring every 15 120 years according to the species. Once the bamboo dies it can take a year to regenerate from seed and it can take as long as 20 years before a new crop can support a giant panda population. Bamboo die-back may have been a positive feature of giant population dynamics in the distant past, enforcing emigration and promoting out breeding and maintenance of a healthy population. However, now human settlements form a barrier to giant panda movements and they can no longer disperse to other areas of suitable habitat.
Conserving the giant panda.
Little was known about the habits of giant pandas until the 1940s when Chinese scientists began to make observations in the wild. Efforts by Chinese authorities to protect the giant panda's habitat began in 1957, and the first four panda reserves were established in 1963. In 1981, supported by WWF, American scientist Dr George Schaller initiated further field studies together with his Chinese colleagues in Wolong Reserve in the Qionglai Mountains of Sichuan. The team's findings still form the basis of much of our knowledge of giant panda ecology and behaviour. Further research on wild pandas has been undertaken in Tangjiahe Reserve in the Minshan Mountains, and in the Foping and Changqing Reserves of the Qinling Mountains.
By the late 1980s there were 13 reserves totalling 5,830km2. WWF expanded its activities to assist China's Ministry of Forests (MoF) with national surveys of giant pandas and their habitat. In 1989, WWF and the MoF jointly produced a management plan which focused on setting up new reserves, maintaining or re establishing 'bamboo corridors' to allow isolated groups of giant pandas to communicate and interbreed, and improving the management and protection of existing reserves. This plan was refined by the MoF and developed into the National Conservation Programme for the Giant Panda and its Habitat.
The Programme has made significant progress. By the end of 1998, 17 new reserves had been gazetted which, when combined with the 15 existing reserves, give protection to over 16,000 km2 of forest in and around giant panda habitat.

What WWF is Doing:
The WWF Action Plan for the Conservation of the Giant Panda was produced in 1996 to guide future activities to save the species in the wild. Projects will focus on: demonstrating integrated conservation and development projects; building capacity and raising awareness; effective reserve management; establishing a database on panda populations and habitat; and nature reserve policy.
Integrated Conservation and Development Project in Pingwu.
Pingwu County is located in the centre of the Minshan panda population in Sichuan. Although the County has three panda reserves, most of the panda’s habitat falls outside them. In 1996, commercial logging was a main source of income for the county’s people, but was also threatening the pandas. The ICDP was established to harmonize conservation and development and to promote local participation in decision making. It has since become a model for addressing people’s need and conserving biodiversity.
Collection of baseline data: WWF is working with a number of Chinese institutions to develop a conservation database for analysing information critical to long-term protection of the giant panda and its habitat. The latest national panda survey, started in 1999, is sponsored jointly by WWF and China’s State Forestry Administration (formerly the MoF). The survey is expected to take three years.
WWF supported the research of Professor Pan Wenshi, of Beijing University, since 1994. Professor Pan monitored the social behaviour, population dynamics and habitat requirements of giant pandas in the Qinling Mountains, Shaanxi Province. In 1992, WWF and the Wolong NR started a monthly panda population survey, continuing Schaller's surveys from the 1980s. This project aims to train Wolong rangers to undertake monitoring activities and extend them to other reserves. WWF has also supported research on captive breeding at the laboratory and captive breeding centre at Wolong.
Support to giant panda reserves: WWF has assisted in developing management plans for the Wanglang and Anzihe Reserves. The Wanglang NR in Sichuan Province is a vital part of a network of reserves in the Minshan Mountains which together protect at least 230 giant pandas. Wanglang itself (332km2) is estimated to contain 19 pandas, one of the highest population densities in the Sichuan reserves. WWF has funded training, purchase of equipment and building of infrastructure in the reserve, including a vehicle and a bridge between the reserve and Pingwu Town. Panda population monitoring and anti poaching patrols have also been initiated, and a zone for nature conservation outside the reserve is being co-managed by local communities. WWF has also provided funds to resume patrolling in Wolong Reserve.

Policy and future management of pandas: China has made great strides in nature conservation in recent years, but it still needs to be higher on the political agenda. WWF’s panda conservation programme seeks to strike a lasting balance between conservation and economic development, by meeting obstacles to giant panda conservation with increased education, capacity building for government institutions and addressing land-use conflicts between humans and wildlife that damage panda habitat. Perhaps most important is to seek ways that panda reserves can become financially secure in the long term.
Education and training projects: WWF has supported capacity building at all levels: by training reserve staff, promoting environmental education in local schools, strengthening training skills in the Sichuan Forestry College, and supporting the establishment of a Natural resource Conservation and Management Centre in Sichuan.


The giant panda is protected by China's Wildlife Protection Law, both nationally, provincially and locally. Under this law, severe penalties are applied to offenders convicted of poaching giant pandas or smuggling their skins. In 1995 a Chinese farmer who shot and killed a giant panda was sentenced to life imprisonment; three accomplices were jailed for shorter periods. The giant panda is on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Trade in the species or its products is subject to strict regulation by ratifying parties, and trade for primarily commercial purposes is banned.
In November 1999, there were about 126 giant pandas in captivity worldwide. Although Chinese scientists have worked continuously to improve the breeding rate of captive pandas, success has proved elusive. In 1999, only 28% of giant pandas in captivity were breeding, and captive-born individuals have low breeding success. However, there has been some progress. Since 1997, 45 giant pandas have been born in captivity. So far, however, the captive population is not yet self sustaining and there are still problems with panda husbandry, particularly the care and welfare of infants. Disease, and rejection by the mother, have been the main causes of death among cubs. There are active research programmes on panda reproduction ongoing at the Wolong Centre.
Panda Loans: On many occasions in the past, the Government of China has presented a foreign state with a gift of a giant panda as a symbol of friendship. From this grew the notion of short term exhibition loans to foreign zoos. WWF and other conservation organisations expressed concern over short term loans, on grounds that such activities were not part of an integrated breeding programme and would put further pressure on wild populations. However, some countries, including the US, that receive pandas on loan are trying to ensure that benefits earned from giant panda exhibitions are funnelled back into panda conservation efforts in China. Although WWF remains opposed to short term exhibition loans, changing circumstances   namely improvement in captive breeding success and our greater knowledge of giant panda behaviour and ecology   mean that long term breeding loans as proposed by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association and the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens may benefit panda conservation. This situation is under constant review by WWF and other scientific organisations.

Further Reading

Lü Zhi and Kemf, E. 2001. Wanted Alive! Giant Pandas in the Wild. A WWF Species Status Report. WWF International, Gland, Switzerland.

Reid, D.G.and Jien, G. 1999 Giant Panda Conservation Action Plan. In: Servheen, C., Herrero, S., and Peyton, B. (Eds.) Bears Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Bear and Polar Bear Specialist Groups. IUCN, Gland Switzerland and Cambridge, UK
Schaller, G.B., Hu, J., Pan, W., and Zhu, J. 1985. The Giant Pandas of Wolong. University of Chicago Press. Chicago, Illinois. 298pp.
Schaller, G.B. 1993. The Last Panda. University of Chicago Press. Chicago, Illinois. 291pp.

Prepared for WWF-NL by WCMC and WWF-Int. Jan. 2001

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