Panda Ecology Essay, Research Paper
The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) was once widespread in southern and
eastern China and in neighbouring Myanmar and north Vietnam. Today, however,
there are only around 1,000 left, and all of these are found in one geographic region
– the bamboo forests of southwestern China.
The panda has the digestive system of a carnivore. Long ago, however, it adapted to
a vegetarian diet and now feeds almost exclusively on the stems and leaves of
bamboo. Hidden in the dense foliage of the forest, the panda eats for up to 14 hours
a day, consuming 12 to 14kg of bamboo.
Black and white and bear like, the panda roams in a well defined home range of
between 3.9 and 12 km2. Until recently, much of what we knew about pandas came
from research at the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan. Studies here showed that
the panda lived a solitary existence, meeting only occasionally with other pandas,
except during the very brief mating season in late spring or early summer when
several males come together and compete for a female. A female is on heat for two
to three days.
New research from Shaanxi Province’s Qinling Mountains now presents a different
scenario. Far from living alone, it claims, pandas in Qinling live and travel in groups
of at least two, and sometimes in groups of up to 28.
Unlike some other bears, the panda does not hibernate. Its cubs are fairly small at
birth, weighing only 90 to 130 gm, but, fully grown, it can weigh 100kg and over.
New born cubs have little fur and are very delicate. Infant mortality is also high. The
average life span is 18 to 20 years in the wild, and up to 30 years in captivity.
Destruction of the panda’s natural habitat is now a major threat to the survival of the
species. In the eleven years from 1973 to 1984, suitable habitat for the animal
shrunk by 50 per cent in six isolated, but previously ideal, areas.
On top of that, there’s the problem of bamboo flowering. At regular intervals
(ranging from 10 to 100 years depending on the species), bamboo plants flower
over large areas and die. Although they regenerate from seed within a year, it can
take up to 20 years before the bamboo can support a panda population again.
When the bamboo in one area flowers, pandas have to move to other areas where
this has not happened. Historically, this was easy, but as the human population
expanded, more forests have been cleared for agricultural purposes, or for the
collection of fuelwood and timber. At the same time, more human settlements and
roads have been built. Together, they make panda migration much more difficult,
leaving pandas restricted to islands of forest.
Some pandas are still hunted for their skins. When a single pelt can fetch up to
US$200,000 in Japan, a few poachers are still prepared to risk the consequences -
the death penalty. More frequently, however, pandas are caught in snares set for
other animals, such as musk deer.