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Panda: A Bear by Any Other Name Is Still a Bear

Updated on March 20, 2011
Three month old Giant Panda, Po, at Zoo Atlanta
Three month old Giant Panda, Po, at Zoo Atlanta

Another Bear Named Po

On November 3, 2010, a male Giant Panda was born at Zoo Atlanta. Usually news relating to Pandas would catch my attention, but somehow this little guy slipped by until I read a recent news article about his naming ceremony at the zoo. Honoring the Chinese custom of waiting 100 days from date of birth before naming a newborn Panda, Po was given his name last month. Po spends his days at the zoo with his mom, Lun Lun, and now weighs about 12 lbs, a considerable accomplishment considering he was the size of a cellphone at birth.

If you are a Panda fan like me, click on the Zoo Atlanta Panda Cam link directly below where you can watch Lun Lun and Po go about their day-to-day lives Monday through Friday from 10AM to 5PM (EST).

The Rest of the Family

Po's father,Yang Yang, also resides at Zoo Atlanta although he will never meet his offspring since father and son will remain separated as they would in the wild. It appears Po's parents have a strained relationship since he was conceived by artificial insemination. Mei Lan (f) and Xi Lan (m) are Po's siblings.

Po's parents are both 13 years old and traveled from China to Zoo Atlanta in 1999. The zoo pays China $2 million a year for the Giant Pandas. Half of that money is used by China to preserve Giant Panda habitats and study their behavior.

They Don't Look Scary ...

Have you ever noticed that sometimes animals can make the cutest puppies, kittens, etc. and then grow into really scary looking mature animals? Well, Pandas don't do that. They're cute little cubs and they grow up to be cute big bears. Therein lies a paradox. The big, round, lumbering white body with its black blotches and iconic, black-fur-circled eyes looks harmless, almost friendly, yet that charming persona provides a deceptive camouflage for the bear underneath.

I once spent most of a sunny, warm, early spring afternoon sitting on the damp grass at the London Zoo in Regent's Park watching the Pandas. I was visiting London for a week and made the trip to the zoo specifically to see them since I had never seen a live Panda before. It was the first time that it occurred to me that those cute big bears were dangerous. Multiple signs were posted in the area warning visitors to keep their hands out of the enclosure and not to attempt to feed or pet the Pandas .

Ching Ching (f), London Zoo, Regents Park
Ching Ching (f), London Zoo, Regents Park
Chia Chia (m), London Zoo, Regents Park
Chia Chia (m), London Zoo, Regents Park

Phantoms of China

Pandas have lived in bamboo forests for millions of years, yet, as elusive as they are, it is speculated that there are only 1,600 to 2,500 wild Giant Pandas alive today and they are living in a few mountain ranges in central China. Originally the Giant Pandas lived in the lowlands but have been driven into the mountains by farming, forest clearing and development. Now they live at altitudes of 5,000 to 10,000 feet in areas of torrential rain and mist. They wander the mountain side year round living their secret lives because, unlike their distant cousins, Giant Pandas do not hibernate. Also, differing again from their cousins, the eyes of Giant Pandas have cat like vertical slits unlike other bears which have round pupils.

Giant Pandas are about the size of the American Black Bear, 2 to 3 feet tall on all fours and 4 to 6 feet long. A male typically weighs around 250 pounds, while a female might reach 220 pounds.

As the number of Giant Pandas dwindle, their naturally slow breeding rate adds to the problem of their decline. Female Giant Pandas can conceive only in the spring. While they may have two cubs, typically only one survives. Cubs stay with their mother for 1 1/2 to 3 years and the average female successfully raises 5 to 8 cubs during her lifetime.

How long do Giant Pandas live? Scientists aren't sure. They do know Giant Pandas in captivity live longer than their cousins in the wild. Giant Pandas as old as 35 have been reported by Chinese scientists.

In the wild, a Giant Panda's diet is 99% bamboo, although they might eat an occasional rodent or deer fawn. The average wild Giant Panda eats 20 to 40 pounds of bamboo each day requiring them to spend 10-16 hours a day forging for food. The rest of the time they sleep. Although fresh bamboo is 90% water, they still have to find another water source which is generally not a problem in their damp environs.

While Giant Pandas have been known to attack humans, it is generally believed they are not predatory animals but rather attack when they are irritated.

Ancient Tibetan Legend

Scientists speculate that the unusual black and white coloring of Giant Pandas is a cloak that enables them to blend into the snowy and rocky terrain of their natural habitat. For those of us who would like a less scientific explanation, there is an ancient Tibetan legend that goes like this:

A long time ago, when pandas lived in the mountains of Tibet, they were white as snow. They were friends with a shepherdess that watched her flocks nearby. One day as the shepherdess played with a panda cub, a leopard jumped out of the woods and tried to attack the cub. The shepherdess threw herself in front of the cub to save it and was killed by the leopard. All the pandas in the area were saddened by her death and held a memorial service to honor her bravery. To remember her sacrifice, the pandas all wore black ashes on their arms as was the custom. As they wept for the shepherdess, they wiped their eyes with their paws, covered their ears to block out the sound of the crying and hugged each other in grief. The ash spread and blackened their fur. To this day, pandas are covered with the black markings to always remember.

Giant Pandas in the United States

Currently there are 12 Giant Pandas in the United States. You can find them at the following zoos:

  • The National Zoo in Washington, DC - (2)
  • Zoo Atlanta in Atlanta, GA (5, including Po)
  • The Memphis Zoo, in Memphis, TN (2)
  • San Diego Zoo, San Diego, CA (3)

Pandas in Peril

Giant Pandas are on the World Conservation Unions Red List of Threatened Animals. In addition to development encroaching upon their natural habitats in China and their slow breeding process, illegal hunting has also been a great threat to the Giant Panda. Because they are so rare the bounty on their heads is high. China has gifted Giant Pandas to other countries but is now diligent about their conservation.

The World Wildlife Foundation has been actively supporting conservation of the Giant Panda for 50 years. As a matter of fact, the Giant Panda has been on the logo for this organization since its inception in 1961. To find out more about the Giant Panda and how you might help create a future for this magnificent animal, click on the link below.


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    • profile image

      Cindy D. 

      7 years ago

      Another interesting story janice-Loved it !


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