What's black and white and cute all over? PANDAS! (I know, you thought I was going to say penguins, but they have orange and yellow and some are blue... very cute, but let's get back to pandas). Pandas are super cute, but also super endangered. Clearing of their habitat, more specifically their only food source, bamboo, along with poaching has threatened pandas to near extinction.
A census in 2014 found that there were 1,864 giant pandas in the wild. While still a very low number, this represents a real success story, with their numbers increasing from around 1,000 in the late 1970s. But still much too low for comfort. With the clearing of bamboo forests, which again, is the only food pandas can digest, humans have placed pandas in quite the predicament. Pandas need loads of bamboo to survive. They eat between 20-40 pounds of bamboo a DAY!
Giant pandas are born tiny (about 100g or 4 ounces). They are blind, white and helpless. Mother pandas cradle their tiny cub in a paw and doesn't leave the den for several days after giving birth, even to drink water. Cubs soon develop soft gray fur, which becomes coarser and develops its black and white pattern in about a month. The baby panda doesn't move from the den in the first two months and at three months baby pandas begin to crawl.
Cubs start to eat bamboo around six months and are fully weaned around nine months old. Panda cubs grow quickly, weighing about 100 pounds at a year old. They stay with their mother for one and a half to two years. When a cub leaves their mother depends on if mom conceives again. Pandas are fully grown in four years to six years and can weigh up to 330 pounds.
Giant pandas in the wild are fully mature and able to breed at four to six years old (females at four, males at six), while giant pandas in captivity mature two to three years earlier. Young male pandas have a lower priority in the wild, and barely have any opportunity to mate until 7 or 8 years old. Female giant pandas are only fertile once a year for two to three days in the spring, between March and May. They leave their partners after mating and raise their cubs alone. Female pandas normally birth one cub every 2 or 3 years from the ages of 4 to 18 years old.
Giant panda gestation is 3 to 5 months, and cubs are usually born in late summer (August mostly) in hidden hollow trees or natural dens, where branches, dry grass, etc. are made into a kind of nest. Normally giant pandas give birth to a single cub. Even if a female has two cubs, she would normally choose to take care of one and abandon the other.
Pandas have a life expectancy of 14-20 years in their natural habitat. Giant pandas live around 30 years in captivity. With medical and nutritional help in captivity, along with the lack of predators, pandas have the ability to live longer, some can live more than 30 years. The oldest recorded panda was Jia Jia in Hong Kong's Ocean Park. She passed away at age 38 in 2016.
While humans are responsible for the deforestation of the bamboo forests leading to the decline in the panda population, I'm glad they are also realizing pandas need our help and the conservation efforts seem to be working, slowly, but steadily. While some may feel it is sad a panda is in captivity, I can appreciate the support, and it's obvious pandas live up to twice as long when protected in captivity and fed on a regular basis and provided with nutritional and medical care.