Giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca)
|Also known as:||panda|
|French:||Panda, Panda Géant|
|Size||Head-body length: 150 - 190 cm (2) (3)|
Tail length: 10 - 15 cm (2) (3)
Male weight: 85 - 125 kg (3)
Female weight: 70 - 100 kg (3)
The giant panda is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1), and listed on Appendix I of CITES (4).
The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is universally admired for its appealing markings and seemingly gentle demeanour. A member of the bear family, the giant panda is a robust animal with heavy shoulders and a distinctive black and white coat (2).
Most of the body and belly of the giant panda are white, contrasting sharply with the black ears, black limbs and shoulders, and black patches over the eyes (3). The male giant panda is slightly larger and heavier than the female (2).
The giant panda has a relatively large head and large, muscular jaws, while its molars and premolar teeth are wider and flatter than those of other bears, allowing it to grind bamboo. This species is also unusual in having a ‘thumb’, which is actually a modified wrist bone that enables the giant panda to dextrously grasp bamboo stalks (3).
The historic range of the giant panda encompassed much of eastern and southern China, reaching into northern Vietnam and Myanmar (1) (2) (3).
Today, the giant panda is restricted to six separate mountain ranges in western China, on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, in the provinces of Gansu, Shaanxi and Sichuan (1) (2) (3).
The giant panda was once found in hilly ravines at lower elevations, but populations have now been forced into the mountains. This species can be found in temperate montane forest at elevations of 1,200 to 4,100 metres, where there is an abundance of bamboo (1) (2).
Unlike some other bear species, the giant panda does not hibernate (1) (2) (3), instead descending to lower elevations in winter to avoid severe weather. It may also make seasonal movements to different elevations to select certain bamboo species or to take advantage of new shoots in spring (3) (6).
Adult giant pandas are largely solitary and have well-defined home ranges, rarely meeting except in the mating season, which runs from March to May (1) (2) (3) (5). During this time, the giant panda signals its presence by marking trees and banks with scent secreted from glands located beneath its tail (3) (6). It will also claw bark (3) (6) and males occasionally ‘dust bathe’, the dust particles becoming covered with the giant panda’s scent and wafting into the air (6).
Male giant pandas often vocalise during the mating season, producing calls that can be heard echoing through the mountains (7). Female giant pandas also use vocalisations such as bleats, moans and barks to advertise their readiness to mate (3).
The female giant panda usually give birth to a single cub between July and September (1) (3). The gestation period is highly variable, ranging from around 95 to 181 days (2) (3), but this is due to a variable delay between fertilisation and implantation, and the true gestation length is closer to about 50 days (3) (8). Although twins are sometimes born, the female rarely raises more than one of the cubs (1) (3). The young giant panda is born at an extremely immature stage of development, weighing only a tiny fraction of the female’s weight (3) (5).
The giant panda cub is helpless after birth, and for the first few weeks of its life the female cares for it in a den located in the base of a hollow tree or in a cave (2) (3) (8). After four to seven weeks, the young panda starts to travel with the female, but must be carried and can only move about independently at five to six months old (3). The young giant panda remains dependent on the female until it is at least 18 months old (2) (3).
Female giant pandas usually give birth only once every two years (2) (3). The giant panda reaches sexual maturity at around 5.5 to 6.5 years old (2) and may live for around 14 to 30 years in the wild (2) (3). This species has often wrongly been thought to be a poor breeder due to its low breeding success in captivity. However, in the wild it has been found to have a breeding rate comparable to other bear species (1) (2).
The giant panda is unusual in the extreme specialisation of its diet, which consists almost entirely of bamboo. As a member of the bear family, the giant panda has the digestive system of a carnivore and so is only able to digest a small proportion of its bamboo food (2) (3). An adult giant panda therefore needs to spend most of its waking hours feeding and must consume between 10 and 18 kilograms of food daily in order to meet its energy requirements (3) (8). It alternates periods of feeding and resting throughout the day and night (3) (7).
Although 99 percent of the giant panda’s diet consists of bamboo (1) (3), it also occasionally eats other plant material and will even sometimes eat meat (2) (7). The giant panda typically sits down to feed, freeing its forelimbs to manipulate food (3).
Habitat loss is the greatest cause of the decline of the giant panda. Large areas of China’s natural forest have been cleared for agriculture, timber and firewood, to meet the needs of the large and growing human population (1) (2) (3). Livestock grazing can also degrade giant panda habitat, preventing trees and bamboo from regenerating (3).
The remaining habitat of the giant panda is highly fragmented, leaving the species restricted to small, isolated subpopulations which are at higher risk of extinction (1) (3). Although its overall population was estimated at around 1,600 individuals in the wild in 2004 (2), many subpopulations of the giant panda are likely to contain fewer than 50 individuals (1).
The giant panda’s dependence on bamboo makes it particularly vulnerable to the effects of habitat loss (2). Bamboo undergoes a periodic die-back every 15 to 120 years, and vast swathes of particular species can disappear at the same time. Previously, the giant panda would migrate to find alternative bamboo sources, but the extent of habitat loss means that this is no longer possible, making panda populations even more vulnerable (1) (3) (7).
Although poaching has been a problem for the giant panda in the past, the introduction of high penalties for poaching has reduced it to levels which are no longer believed to pose a significant threat. However, giant pandas are still sometimes killed in snares illegally set for other species (1) (3).
The giant panda receives the highest level of protection under China’s Wildlife Protection Law (1) (2) (3). This species is also listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which effectively bans international trade (4).
A national conservation plan is in place for the giant panda (1) (3), and major conservation efforts are underway to restore panda habitat. Many forest reserves have been created specifically to protect giant pandas, with a priority being to establish habitat ‘corridors’ to link different protected areas (1) (2) (3). China is also working to increase and improve forested areas outside of reserves, although the rapid pace of economic development threatens to cause further habitat fragmentation (1).
Captive breeding programmes are believed to be important to the giant panda, both as insurance against the species going extinct in the wild, and to create a source of individuals for reintroduction into the wild when this becomes feasible (3) (8). The success of captive breeding has markedly increased in recent years, thanks to significant advances in managing the health of captive pandas and a greater understanding of the species’ reproductive biology (8).
A range of organisations are conducting important work both in captivity and in the field to address the conservation needs of the giant panda and to improve knowledge of its habitat, populations and behaviour (8). It will be important to continue monitoring the wild giant panda population, as well as to raise conservation awareness among local people (2) (3).
After years of decline, the giant panda is now thought to be increasing in the wild (2). Despite remaining in grave danger of extinction, the giant panda is one of the universally recognised symbols of conservation and has been the logo of WWF since the 1960s. This organisation has been working closely with the Chinese people over the decades to help conserve this much-loved Chinese species for future generations (2).
More information on the giant panda and WWF’s work:
WWF - Giant Panda:
More information on giant panda research, conservation and breeding programme:
Smithsonian National Zoological Park - Giant Pandas:
More general information on the giant panda:
BBC Wildlife Finder - Giant Panda:
EDGE of Existence:
Authenticated (05/01/2012) by Dr. Susan Lumpkin, Research Associate, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
- Carnivore: an organism that feeds on flesh. The term can also be used to refer to a mammal in the order Carnivora.
- Evergreen: a plant which retains leaves all year round. This is in contrast to deciduous plants, which completely lose their leaves for part of the year.
- Fertilisation: the fusion of gametes (male and female reproductive cells) to produce an embryo, which grows into a new individual.
- Gestation: the state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
- Gland: an organ that makes and secretes substances used by the body.
- Hibernate: hibernation is a winter survival strategy in which an animal’s metabolic rate slows down and a state of deep sleep is attained. Whilst hibernating, animals survive on stored reserves of fat that they have accumulated in summer.
- Home range: the area occupied by an animal during routine activities, which is not actively defended.
- Montane forest: forest occurring in mountains.
IUCN Red List (January, 2012)
WWF (June, 2002)
Servheen, C., Herrero, S. and Peyton, B. (1999) Bears: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Bear and Polar Bear Specialist Groups, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. Available at:
CITES (October, 2002)
- Macdonald, D. (2001) The New Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- PANDAS OF THE SLEEPING DRAGON (The Natural World) (1994, d. BBC).
- PANDAS ARE NOT ALWAYS CUDDLY (Wildlife on One) (1992, d. BBC).
- Lumpkin, S. (2006) Pers. comm.