Description of Ailuropoda melanoleuca
Significant climatic changes combined with thousands of years of cultivation of lower and flatter habitats and hunting by humans caused the giant pandasâ range to shrink to a remnant at the rugged western fringe of a once more expansive area (Schaller et al. 1985). This species previously ranged throughout most of southern and eastern China, with fossils indicating presence as far south as northern Myanmar and northern Viet Nam and stretching north nearly to Beijing. Another related species, the pygmy giant panda (A. microta), now extinct, also once existed in this area. As recently as 1850, giant pandas existed in eastern Sichuan and Hubei and Hunan Provinces. By 1900, they occurred only in the Qinling Mountains and along the edge of the Tibetan plateau. Soon after 1900, the expansion of agriculture upstream along principal river valleys separated this distribution into separate regions in the six mountain ranges.
Ailuropoda melanoleuca, already considered rare in ancient China, is now limited to the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, and Shanxi in the central part of the country. The total range covers 29,500 sq. km, but only 5900 sq. km is panda habitat (Ward and Kynaston, 1995; Massicot, 2001).
Biogeographic Regions: oriental (Native )
In general, A. melanoleuca has a round head, stocky body, and short tail. The shoulder height is 65-70 cm. It is well-known for its distinctive black and white markings. The limbs, eyes, ears, and shoulders are all black and the rest of the body is white. In some areas the black actually has a chesnut-red tinge. The dark markings around the eyes may be the reason for these animals' popularity giving them a wide-eyed, juvenile appearance. An enlarged shoulder and neck region along with a smaller back end gives giant pandas an ambling gait. A baculum (bony rod in soft tissue of penis) is present as in many other mammals. However, in other bears it is straight and forwardly directed, while in giant pandas it is "S" shaped and backwardly directed. Giant pandas also have several adaptations to the skull. They have a large sagittal crest that has become wider and deeper resulting in powerful jaws. The molars and premolars are wider and flatter than other bears' and they have developed extensive ridges and cusps in order to grind tough bamboo. A notable feature on these animals is an extra, opposable digit on the hand known as "the panda's thumb." It has caused confusion in the past as to these bears' classification. This digit is not actually a thumb but a pad of skin overlying a radial sesamoid structure (wrist bone) (Ward and Kynaston, 1995; Helin et al., 1999).
Range mass: 80 to 125 kg.
Range length: 1.5 to 1.8 m.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; bilateral symmetry
Habitat and Ecology
Giant pandas spend about 55% of the day (both daytime and night-time) feeding, mainly on bamboo (Schaller et al. 1985, 1989). Bamboo comprises 99% of their diet. They utilize over 60 species of bamboo, but 35 species comprise their main food source (Hu and Wei 2004). They often use different species of bamboo in different elevational bands, varying use with the seasons (Pan et al. 2001, Loucks et al. 2003)
Pandas are often erroneously believed to be poor breeders, an impression rooted in the previous disappointing reproductive performance of captive animals (LÃ¼ et al. 2000). Studies of wild pandas, however, indicate that their reproductive rates are comparable to those of some other species of bears (Garshelis 2004, Harris 2004, Wang et al. 2004). Moreover, captive populations in China are now reproducing well.
Giant pandas are usually solitary, except during the mating season and while rearing a cub. During the MarchâMay breeding season, females may breed with multiple males. Birthing, often in rock dens or hollow trees, occurs in AugustâSeptember (Schaller et al. 1985, Zhu et al. 2001). One or two cubs are born, but the mother raises only one.
Giant pandas inhabit montane forests and mixed coniferous and broadleaf forests where bamboo stands are present (Helin et al., 1999; Massicot, 2001).
Range elevation: 1200 to 3900 m.
Habitat Regions: temperate
Terrestrial Biomes: forest
Giant pandas have an extremely strict energy budget. They travel little and are usually foraging when they do move. Giant pandas can spend 10-12 hours a day feeding. Bamboo, the main source of pandas' diet (over 99%) is a very poor nutritional source but present all year round. Only about 17% of the nutrients found in the leaves and stalks are extracted. These bears make a trade-off to have a plentiful, easily obtained food source but with low nutritional value. Giant pandas are well-known for their upright feeding position which leaves their forelegs free to handle the bamboo stalks. This species has several special characteristics related to eating bamboo. The extra digit on the panda's hand helps the panda in tearing the bamboo. This adaptation also allows increased dexterity while handling bamboo. The stomach walls are extremely muscular to help digest the woody diet; and the gut is covered with a thick layer of mucus to protect against splinters (Ward and Kynaston, 1995; Malius, 2001; Massicot, 2001).
Foods eaten include: bamboo stems and shoots, fruits of plant matter like kiwi, small mammals, fish and insects.
Animal Foods: mammals; fish; insects
Plant Foods: leaves; fruit
Primary Diet: herbivore (Folivore )
Giant panda population is closely tied to bamboo abundance and vice versa. Pandas help to distribute the bamboo seeds over areas. However, as panda numbers dwindle so does bamboo, making it harder for them to find food. Panda protected areas help to protect native ecosystems.
Ecosystem Impact: disperses seeds
- World Wildlife Fund, 2001. "Endangered Species: Panda Conservation" (On-line). Accessed (Date Unknown) at http://www.worldwildlife.org/pandas/conservation.htm.
The black and white markings on giant pandas may have served as an anti-predator device in the past when the animals had predation pressure. The black and white pattern might have broken up the outline the bears presented, similar to the effect of zebra stripes. Also, in the past, when these pandas inhabited snowier areas, the white may have helped these bears blend into the surroundings. However, today giant pandas live in almost snow free areas. Fortunately no more natural predators exist for pandas today (Ward and Kynaston, 1995).
- humans (Homo sapiens)
- No natural enemies today but possibly in the past animals such as tigers
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Known prey organisms
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Life History and Behavior
Giant pandas scent-mark with urine and secretions from the anogenital region, using a variety of postures. Squatting and rubbing the perineum on a surface is common to both sexes. On a vertical surface, a leg lift may be used to permit anogenital contact and rubbing. The male often urinates and/or rubs the perineum in the leg-lift posture while the female generally only rubs the anogenital region. The female occasionally urinates in a 'handstand' position where both hind limbs are raised off the substrate; as a juvenile he would urinate and rub the anogenital region in a handstand. Both sexes sniffmarking sites extensively, and there is a noticeable build-up of secretions and discolouration at preferred locales.
- Kleiman, Devra G; Karesh, William B; Chu, Penn R. 1979. Behavioural changes associated with oestrus in the Giant panda Ailuropoda melanoleuca with comments on female proceptive behavior. International Zoo Yearbook Vol. 19, 217-223
One giant panda lived to an age of about 34 years in captivity but that is uncommon. Normal max life expectancy in captivity is 26 years, surprisingly it is sometimes as much as 30 years. Lifespan in the wild is not known (Massicot, 2001; Helin et al., 1999; Word Wildlife Fund, 2001).
Status: captivity: 34 (high) years.
Status: wild: 10 to 15 years.
Status: captivity: 30 (high) years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Females in this species increase their scent markings as well as become more vocal when sexually receptive. A study between sexually active and sexually inactive pandas suggested that scent markings relate to sexual activity and captive inhabitance could be the cause for the poor reproductive ability. Males may also compete for access to a female (Liu et al., 1998; Ward and Kynaston, 1995).
Mating occurs from March to May. The female is in estrous for roughly 1-3 days. There is usually a delay of implantation which can last 1.5 months to 4 months. This may be due to climatic conditions so that the young is born at a fairly stable time. Females are less active as estrous begins, however they become restless, lose their appetite, and their vulva swells. Most of the young are born in August and September. Actual embryonic development lasts about 1.5 months. At birth, giant pandas, like all other bears are blind and helpless; but unlike most bears at birth, giant panda cubs are covered with a thin layer of fur. Newborn cubs weigh 85 to 140 grams. Immediately after birth the mother helps place the infant bear into a position to suckle. Suckling takes place up to 14 times a day and lasts for periods of up to 30 minutes. Infant pandas open their eyes at 3 weeks and cannot move around on their own until 3-4 months and are weaned at about 46 weeks. A cub may remain with its mother up to 18 months (Massicot, 2001; Helin et al., 1999; Ward and Kynaston, 1995). Breeding these bears in captivity has been an incredible challenge. Giant pandas are notorious for their reluctance to breed in captivity (Helin et al., 1999; Milius, 2001; Ward and Kynaston, 1995).
Breeding interval: Female giant pandas may breed every 2 years or less frequently.
Breeding season: Breeding is from March to May.
Range number of offspring: 1 to 3.
Average number of offspring: 1.7.
Range gestation period: 112 to 163 days.
Average weaning age: 46 weeks.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 5.5 to 6 years.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 5.5 to 6 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); viviparous ; delayed implantation
Average birth mass: 110 g.
Average number of offspring: 1.5.
It has been found from studying giant pandas in captivity that they have twins more often than previously thought--roughly half the time. The mother usually selects one and the other dies shortly after (Milius, 2001).
Parental Investment: altricial ; female parental care
- Helin, S. 1999. The Mammalian of China. Beijing China: China Forestry Publishing House.
- Ward, P., S. Kynaston. 1995. Bears of the World. London: Blandford.
- Massicot, P. July 29, 2001. "Animal Info-Giant Panda" (On-line). Accessed October 3, 2001 at http://www.animalinfo.org/species/carnivor/ailumela.htm#Countries.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Ailuropoda melanoleuca
There are 4 barcode sequences available from BOLD and GenBank. Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species. See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Ailuropoda melanoleuca
Public Records: 5
Specimens with Barcodes: 8
Species With Barcodes: 1
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
- 1994Endangered(Groombridge 1994)
- 1990Endangered(IUCN 1990)
- 1988Rare(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1988)
- 1986Rare(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1986)
Date Listed: 01/23/1984
Lead Region: Foreign (Region 10)
Where Listed: China
Population location: China
Listing status: E
For most current information and documents related to the conservation status and management of Ailuropoda melanoleuca , see its USFWS Species Profile
Threats to this species include poaching, habitat loss, human encroachment, and trouble breeding in captivity. Tourism around giant pandas' habitat means more hotels, waste disposal systems, cars, buses, etc. and less room for pandas. Remaining bamboo forests in China only support about 1,000 wild pandas. Thirteen panda reserves totaling an area of 6,227 square km make up half of the remaining habitat. Also, the habitat has been broken into about 20 different separate patches. The pandas have trouble migrating from one site to another. Although efforts are showing improvement compared to earlier years, the zoo population of about 100 pandas worldwide has yet to produce enough cubs to maintain itself. The first successful panda breeding came in 1980 at the Mexico City Zoo, however the infant died after 8 days. In August 1999 another cub was born at San Diego Zoo and seems to be flourishing. To protect the population in the wild, the Chinese government has many anti-poaching laws. Some violators of these laws have even been sentenced to death. In October 1989 the first executions for trading panda skins took place. China has also stopped commercial logging. In 1986 an education campaign took place among 5,000 villages. It attempted to teach farmers and villagers about panda protection and discourage them from cutting bamboo. In 1992 the Chinese government approved the National Conservation Program for the Giant Panda and its Habitat. Since the 1980s many programs have been put in place attempting to save these great animals. Success to breed them in captivity is looking more hopeful but in the wild the numbers are still low. Recent Chinese studies have shown that panda populations have actually been stable for 20 years, but all this effort still may not be enough to save this species (Ward and Kynaston, 1995; World Wildlife Fund, 2001; Massicot, 2001)
US Federal List: endangered
CITES: appendix i
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: endangered
Results from the most recent survey, coordinated by the State Forestry Administration (SFA) of China and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), indicated a total population of ~1600 individuals. This is over 40% higher than previous estimates. It is believed that the increase in the estimated number of pandas is due largely to differences in survey methodology and a larger search area, as well as possibly an actual increase in panda population size in some areas. Conversely, in other areas, habitat conditions were deemed to be worse and panda numbers lower in 2000â2002 than in the 1980s survey.
The most recent population estimate was based on differentiating individual pandas from measurements of bamboo fragments in scats. It is known that different age classes of pandas have different bite-sizes of bamboo (Schaller et al. 1985), but the validity of differentiating individuals of the same age class based on bite-sizes has not been well tested. Recent information on DNA-identified scats suggests that the bite-size method may underestimate population size in some cases (e.g., dense populations; Zhan et al. 2006).
Many surviving wild giant panda subpopulations have fewer than 50 individuals (Loucks et al. 2001). No major reductions in the genetic diversity of these populations is apparent, although they likely experienced modest genetic losses from a much larger ancestral population (LÃ¼ 2001). Some controversial research suggests that the Qinling (Shaanxi Province) population is a genetically isolated and distinct subspecies (Wan et al. 2005)
Chinese authorities have established a network of panda reserves, and linkages now exist among some of these, but small population size and small total range remains a threat to the viability of this species. Moreover, in some reserves, and especially in panda range outside reserves, habitat has become degraded by intensive human use (Liu et al. 2001).
A further threat to pandas relates to their reliance on bamboo for food. Bamboo is subject to periodic, synchronous (and hence large-scale) flowering and die-off (at intervals of 15â120 years). Before significant human encroachment of their habitat, pandas could move to areas with healthy bamboo when a die-off occurred. Studies following the latest major bamboo die-off in the early 1980s indicated that pandas were still able to survive by finding patches that had not flowered, and also by moving to alternate habitats and feeding on less-favoured species of bamboo (Johnson et al. 1988, Reid et al. 1989).
Poaching of pandas was a serious problem in the past, but it has greatly diminished, and is no longer considered a major threat. Markets for panda skins have virtually disappeared, and penalties for poaching pandas have become far more severe (including death sentences in some cases). Panda parts are not used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. However, giant pandas are still sometimes killed in snares set for musk deer and other species.
Since poaching of pandas has been largely controlled, the major conservation issue is restoring their habitat (Reid and Gong 1999, LÃ¼ et al. 2000). Previous considerations to clone pandas have been largely abandoned. There are still plans to release captive animals (experimental tests of this are presently occurring), but this effort addresses mainly a problem of overcrowding in captivity (due to enormous success in captive breeding) rather than the wild situation. Reintroduction of captive animals may be limited by lack of suitable release sites with adequate habitat but few or no pandas, which are necessary conditions to avoid possible transmission of disease and social disruption of the wild population.
A concerted effort has been made to increase both the quantity and quality of panda habitat. Beginning in 1963, forest reserves were established specifically for the conservation of giant pandas. By 1990, 13 panda reserves had been established â presently there are nearly 60 (under either federal or provincial jurisdiction). Increasing linkages among these reserves is a conservation priority (Loucks et al. 2003).
In addition to creating new reserves, China has worked to increase and improve forested area outside reserves. Following extensive flooding in 1998, tied directly to deforestation, China implemented the Natural Forest Conservation Program to enhance forest cover throughout major river basins; this included a ban on logging in natural forests. Additionally, a âGrain-to-Greenâ policy has forced farmers to abandon agricultural fields on steep slopes and replant these areas with trees (for which they are given grain and cash subsidies). As a result of these policies, China has become first in the world in terms of forest area gained per year (FAO 2006). The suitability of many of these newly forested areas for pandas, though, is still questionable. Additionally, the rising pace of economic development, particularly in presently undeveloped areas, has created more road and hydro-power construction, causing more forest fragmentation.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Economic Importance for Humans: Negative
There are no real negative economic impacts of giant pandas on humans, primarily because of their rarity. Panda preserves occupy land that might be considered valuable for harvesting, but the presence of pandas and their economic impact through tourism and preservation of ecosystems is likely to more than make up for any negative impact of reduced development.
Economic Importance for Humans: Positive
Giant pandas have been hunted for their fur. In recent years the pelt has been considered a valuable sleeping mat; it is comfortable but also believed to have supernatural markings which prevent ghosts and help predict the future through dreams. A panda skin is highly valued--in Japan it carries a price tag equal to $176,000. Giant pandas are also popular zoo exhibits attracting many people.
Positive Impacts: body parts are source of valuable material; ecotourism ; research and education
The giant panda, or panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca, literally meaning "black and white cat-foot") is a bear native to central-western and south western China. It is easily recognized by its large, distinctive black patches around the eyes, over the ears, and across its round body. Though it belongs to the order Carnivora, the panda's diet is 99% bamboo. Pandas in the wild will occasionally eat other grasses, wild tubers, or even meat in the form of birds, rodents or carrion. In captivity they may receive honey, eggs, fish, yams, shrub leaves, oranges, or bananas along with specially prepared feed.
The giant panda lives in a few mountain ranges in central China, mainly in Sichuan province, but also in the Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. Due to farming, deforestation and other development, the panda has been driven out of the lowland areas where it once lived.
The panda is a conservation reliant endangered species. A 2007 report shows 239 pandas living in captivity inside China and another 27 outside the country. Wild population estimates vary; one estimate shows that there are about 1,590 individuals living in the wild, while a 2006 study via DNA analysis estimated that this figure could be as high as 2,000 to 3,000. Some reports also show that the number of pandas in the wild is on the rise. However, the IUCN does not believe there is enough certainty yet to reclassify the species from Endangered to Vulnerable.
While the dragon has historically served as China's national emblem, in recent decades the panda has also served as an emblem for the country. Its image appears on a large number of modern Chinese commemorative silver, gold, and platinum coins. Though the panda is often assumed to be docile, it has been known to attack humans, presumably out of irritation rather than predation.
The Giant Panda has a black-and-white coat. Adults measure around 1.5 meters (5 ft) long and around 75 centimeters (2 ft 6 in) tall at the shoulder. Males can weigh up to 150 kilograms (330 lb). Females (generally 10–20% smaller than males) can weigh up to 125 kilograms (280 lb).
The Giant Panda has a body shape typical of bears. It has black fur on its ears, eye patches, muzzle, legs, arms and shoulders. The rest of the animal's coat is white. Although scientists do not know why these unusual bears are black and white, some speculate that the bold coloring provides effective camouflage in its shade-dappled snowy and rocky surroundings. The Giant Panda's thick, wooly coat keeps it warm in the cool forests of its habitat. The Giant Panda has large molar teeth and strong jaw muscles for crushing tough bamboo.
The Giant Panda's paw has a "thumb" and five fingers; the "thumb" is actually a modified sesamoid bone, which helps the Giant Panda to hold bamboo while eating. Stephen Jay Gould discusses this feature in his book of essays on evolution and biology, The Panda's Thumb.
In the wild, the Giant Panda is a terrestrial animal and primarily spends its life roaming and feeding in the bamboo forests of the Qinling Mountains and in the hilly Sichuan Province. Though generally alone, each adult has a defined territory and females are not tolerant of other females in their range. Pandas communicate through vocalization and scent marking such as clawing trees or spraying urine. The Giant Panda is able to climb and take shelter in hollow trees or rock crevices but does not establish permanent dens. For this reason, pandas do not hibernate, which is similar to other subtropical mammals, and will instead move to elevations with warmer temperatures. Pandas rely primarily on spatial memory rather than visual memory.
Despite its taxonomic classification as a carnivoran, the Giant Panda's diet is primarily herbivorous, consisting almost exclusively of bamboo. However, the Giant Panda still has the digestive system of a carnivore, as well as carnivore-specific genes, and thus derives little energy and little protein from consumption of bamboo. Its ability to digest cellulose is ascribed to the microbes in its gut. The average Giant Panda eats as much as 9 to 14 kg (20 to 30 pounds) of bamboo shoots a day. Because the Giant Panda consumes a diet low in nutrition, it is important for it to keep its digestive tract full. The limited energy input imposed on it by its diet has affected the panda's behavior. The Giant Panda tends to limit its social interactions and avoids steeply sloping terrain in order to limit its energy expenditures.
Two of the panda's most distinctive features, its large size and its round face, are adaptations to its bamboo diet. Panda researcher Russell Ciochon observed that: “[much] like the vegetarian gorilla, the low body surface area to body volume [of the giant panda] is indicative of a lower metabolic rate. This lower metabolic rate and a more sedentary lifestyle allow the giant panda to subsist on nutrient poor resources such as bamboo.” Similarly, the Giant Panda's round face is the result of powerful jaw muscles, which attach from the top of the head to the jaw. Large molars crush and grind fibrous plant material.
Pandas eat any of twenty-five bamboo species in the wild, such as Fargesia dracocephala and Fargesia rufa. Only a few bamboo species are widespread at the high altitudes pandas now inhabit. Bamboo leaves contain the highest protein levels; stems have less. Given this large diet, the Giant Panda can defecate up to 40 times a day. 
Because of the synchronous flowering, death, and regeneration of all bamboo within a species, the Giant Panda must have at least two different species available in its range to avoid starvation. While primarily herbivorous, the Giant Panda still retains decidedly ursine teeth, and will eat meat, fish, and eggs when available. In captivity, zoos typically maintain the Giant Panda's bamboo diet, though some will provide specially-formulated biscuits or other dietary supplements.
For many decades the precise taxonomic classification of the Giant Panda was under debate because it shares characteristics of both bears and raccoons. However, molecular studies suggest that the Giant Panda is a true bear and part of the Ursidae family, though it differentiated early in history from the main ursine stock. The Giant Panda's closest ursine relative is the Spectacled Bear of South America. The Giant Panda has been referred to as a living fossil.
Despite the shared name, habitat type, and diet, as well as a unique enlarged bone called the pseudo thumb (which helps them grip the bamboo shoots they eat), the Giant Panda and Red Panda are only distantly related. Molecular studies have placed the Red Panda in its own family Ailuridae, and not under Ursidae.
Two subspecies of Giant Panda have been recognized on the basis of distinct cranial measurements, color patterns, and population genetics (Wan et al., 2005).
- The nominate subspecies Ailuropoda melanoleuca melanoleuca consists of most extant populations of panda. These animals are principally found in Sichuan and display the typical stark black and white contrasting colors.
- The Qinling Panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca qinlingensis is restricted to the Qinling Mountains in Shaanxi at elevations of 1300–3000 m. The typical black and white pattern of Sichuan Giant Pandas is replaced with a dark brown versus light brown pattern. The skull of A. m. qinlingensis is smaller than its relatives, and it has larger molars.
Uses and human interaction
In the past, pandas were thought to be rare and noble creatures – the mother of Emperor Wen of Han was buried with a panda skull in her vault. The grandson of Emperor Taizong of Tang is said to have given Japan two pandas and a sheet of panda skin as a sign of goodwill. Unlike many other animals in Ancient China, pandas were rarely thought to have medical uses. The few known uses include the Sichuan tribal peoples' use of panda urine to melt accidentally swallowed needles, and the use of panda pelts to control menses as described in the Qin Dynasty encyclopedia Erya.
The creature named mo (貘) mentioned in some ancient books has been interpreted as giant panda. The dictionary Shuowen Jiezi (Eastern Han Dynasty) says that the mo, from Shu (Sichuan), is bear-like, but yellow-and-black, although the older Erya describes mo simply as a "white leopard". The interpretation of the legendary fierce creature pixiu (貔貅) as referring to the giant panda are also common.
The comparative obscurity of the giant panda throughout most of China's history is illustrated by the fact that, despite there being a number of depictions of bears in Chinese art starting from its most ancient times, and the bamboo being one of the favorite subjects for Chinese painters, there are no known pre-20th-century artistic representations of giant pandas.
The West first learned of the Giant Panda in 1869 because the French missionary Armand David  received a skin from a hunter on March 11, 1869. The first Westerner known to have seen a living Giant Panda is the German zoologist Hugo Weigold, who purchased a cub in 1916. Kermit and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., became the first Westerners to shoot a panda, on an expedition funded by the Field Museum of Natural History in the 1920s. In 1936, Ruth Harkness became the first Westerner to bring back a live Giant Panda, a cub named Su Lin who went to live at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. In 1938, five Giant Pandas were sent to London; these activities were later halted because of wars and for the next half of the century, the West knew little of pandas.
Loans of Giant Pandas to American and Japanese zoos formed an important part of the diplomacy of the People's Republic of China in the 1970s, as it marked some of the first cultural exchanges between the People's Republic and the West. This practice has been termed "Panda diplomacy".
By 1984, however, pandas were no longer used as agents of diplomacy. Instead, China began to offer pandas to other nations only on 10-year loans. The standard loan terms include a fee of up to US$1,000,000 per year and a provision that any cubs born during the loan are the property of the People's Republic of China. Since 1998, due to a WWF lawsuit, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service only allows a U.S. zoo to import a panda if the zoo can ensure that China will channel more than half of its loan fee into conservation efforts for the Giant Panda and its habitat.
In May 2005, China offered a breeding pair to Taiwan. The issue became embroiled in cross-Strait relations—both over the underlying symbolism, and over technical issues such as whether the transfer would be considered "domestic" or "international," or whether any true conservation purpose would be served by the exchange. China's offer was initially rejected by President Chen of Taiwan. However when the presidency changed hands China's offer was accepted at the beginning of Ma Ying-jeou's presidency in 2008, and the pandas themselves arrived in December of that year. A contest to name the pandas was held in China, resulting in the politically charged names "Tuan Tuan" and "Yuan Yuan" (from tuanyuan, meaning "reunion", i.e. "reunification").
The Giant Panda has been a target for poaching by locals since ancient times and by foreigners since it was introduced to the West. Starting in the 1930s, foreigners were unable to poach Giant Pandas in China because of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War, but pandas remained a source of soft furs for the locals. The population boom in China after 1949 created stress on the pandas' habitat, and the subsequent famines led to the increased hunting of wildlife, including pandas. During the Cultural Revolution, all studies and conservation activities on the pandas were stopped. After the Chinese economic reform, demand for panda skins from Hong Kong and Japan led to illegal poaching for the black market, acts generally ignored by the local officials at the time.
Though the Wolong National Nature Reserve was set up by the PRC government in 1958 to save the declining panda population, few advances in the conservation of pandas were made, due to inexperience and insufficient knowledge of ecology. Many believed that the best way to save the pandas was to cage them. As a result, pandas were caged at any sign of decline, and suffered from terrible conditions. Because of pollution and destruction of their natural habitat, along with segregation due to caging, reproduction of wild pandas was severely limited. In the 1990s, however, several laws (including gun control and the removal of resident humans from the reserves) helped the chances of survival for pandas. With these renewed efforts and improved conservation methods, wild pandas have started to increase in numbers in some areas, even though they still are classified as a rare species.
In 2006, scientists reported that the number of pandas living in the wild may have been underestimated at about 1,000. Previous population surveys had used conventional methods to estimate the size of the wild panda population, but using a new method that analyzes DNA from panda droppings, scientists believe that the wild panda population may be as large as 3,000. Although the species is still endangered, it is thought that the conservation efforts are working. As of 2006, there were 40 panda reserves in China, compared to just 13 reserves two decades ago.
The Giant Panda is among the world's most adored and protected rare animals, and is one of the few in the world whose natural inhabitant status was able to gain a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. The Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries, located in the southwest Sichuan province and covering seven natural reserves, were inscribed onto the World Heritage List in 2006.
Not all conservationists agree that the money spent on conserving pandas is money well spent. Chris Packham has argued that breeding pandas in captivity is "pointless" because "there is not enough habitat left to sustain them". Packham argues that the money spent on pandas would be better spent elsewhere, and has said that he would "eat the last panda if I could have all the money we have spent on panda conservation put back on the table for me to do more sensible things with," though he has apologized for upsetting people who like pandas. He points out that "The panda is possibly one of the grossest wastes of conservation money in the last half century."
Initially the primary method of breeding Giant Pandas in captivity was by artificial insemination, as they seemed to lose their interest in mating once they were captured. This led some scientists to try extreme methods such as showing them videos of giant Pandas mating and giving the males Viagra. Only recently have researchers started having success with captive breeding programs, and they have now determined that Giant Pandas have comparable breeding to some populations of the American Black Bear, a thriving bear family. The current reproductive rate is considered one young every two years.
Giant Pandas reach sexual maturity between the ages of four and eight, and may be reproductive until age 20. The mating season is between March and May, when a female goes into her estrous cycle which lasts for two or three days and only occurs once a year. When mating, the female is in a crouching, head-down position as the male mounts her from behind. Copulation time is short, ranging from thirty seconds to five minutes, but the male may mount her repeatedly to ensure successful fertilization. The gestation period ranges from 95 to 160 days. Cubs weigh only 90 to 130 grams (3.2 to 4.6 ounces), which is about 1/800 of the mother's weight. 
If twins are born, usually only one survives in the wild. The mother will select the stronger of the cubs, and the weaker will die. It is thought that the mother cannot produce enough milk for two cubs since she does not store fat. The father has no part in helping raise the cub.
When the cub is first born, it is pink, blind, and toothless.  A Giant Panda cub is also extremely small, and it is difficult for the mother to protect it because of the baby's size. It nurses from its mother's breast 6 to 14 times a day for up to 30 minutes at a time. For three to four hours, the mother may leave the den to feed, which leaves the cub defenseless. One to two weeks after birth, the cub's skin turns gray where its hair will eventually become black. A slight pink color may appear on cub's fur, as a result of a chemical reaction between the fur and its mother's saliva. A month after birth, the color pattern of the cub's fur is fully developed. A cub's fur is very soft and coarsens with age. The cub begins to crawl at 75 to 80 days;  mothers play with their cubs by rolling and wrestling with them. The cubs are able to eat small quantities of bamboo after six months, though mother's milk remains the primary food source for most of the first year. Giant Panda cubs weigh 45 kg (100 pounds) at one year, and live with their mothers until they are 18 months to two years old. The interval between births in the wild is generally two years.
In July 2009, Chinese scientists confirmed the birth of the first cub to be successfully conceived through artificial insemination using frozen sperm. The cub was born at 07:41 on 23 July that year in Sichuan as the third cub of You You, an 11-year-old. The technique for freezing the sperm in liquid nitrogen was first developed in 1980 and the first birth was hailed as a solution to the problem of lessening Giant Panda semen availability which had led to in-breeding. It has been suggested that panda semen, which can be frozen for decades, could be shared between different zoos to save the species. It is expected that zoos in destinations such as San Diego in the United States and Mexico City will now be able to provide their own semen to inseminate more Giant Pandas.
Attempts have also been made to reproduce giant pandas by interspecific pregnancy by implanting cloned panda embryos into the uterus of an animal of another species. This has resulted in panda fetuses, but no live births.
There is no conclusive explanation of the origin of the word "panda". The closest candidate is the Nepali word ponya, possibly referring to the adapted wrist bone. The Western world originally applied this name to the Red Panda. Until 1901, when it was erroneously stated that it was related to the Red Panda, the Giant Panda was known as "mottled bear" (Ailuropus melanoleucus) or "particolored bear".
In most encyclopedic sources, the name "panda" or "common panda" originally referred to the lesser-known Red Panda, thus necessitating the inclusion of "giant" and "lesser/red" prefixes in front of the names. Even as of 2010[update] the Encyclopædia Britannica still used "giant panda" or "panda bear" for the bear  and simply "panda" for the Ailuridae, despite the popular usage of the word "panda".
Since the earliest collection of Chinese writings, the Chinese language has given the bear 20 different names, such as 花熊 (hua xiong) "spotted bear" and 竹熊 (zhu xiong) "bamboo bear". The most popular names in China today are 大熊貓 (dà xióng māo), literally "large bear cat", or just 熊貓 (xióng māo), "bear cat". The name may have been inspired by the Giant Panda's eyes, which have pupils that are cat-like vertical slits - unlike other bear species, which have round pupils.
In Taiwan, the popular name for panda is the inverted 貓熊 (māo xióng) "cat bear," even though many encyclopedia and dictionaries in Taiwan still use "bear cat" as the correct name. Some linguists argue that, in this construction, "bear" instead of "cat" is the base noun, making this name more grammatically and logically correct, which may have led to the popular choice despite official writings.
Pandas have been kept in zoos as early as the Western Han Dynasty in China, where the writer Sima Xiangru notes that the panda was the most treasured animal in the emperor's garden of exotic animals in Xi'an. Not until the 1950s were pandas again recorded to have been exhibited in China's zoos.
A 2006 New York Times article outlined the economics of keeping pandas, which costs five times more than that of the next most expensive animal, an elephant. American zoos generally pay the Chinese government $1 million a year in fees, as part of a typical ten-year contract. San Diego's contract with China was to expire in 2008 but got a five-year extension at about half of the previous yearly cost. The last contract, with the Memphis Zoo in Memphis, Tennessee, ends in 2013.
Many zoos and breeding centers in China house giant pandas. These include:
- Beijing Zoo – home of the internationally notorious Gu Gu.
- Bifengxia Panda Base, Ya'an, Sichuan – home to U.S. born giant pandas Mei Sheng (M), Hua Mei (F), Tai Shan (M), Su Lin (F), and Zhen Zhen (F).
- Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, Chengdu, Sichuan – Twelve cubs were born here in 2006. It is also home to Japanese-born Xiong Bang (M) and U.S.-born Mei Lan (F).
- China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda at the Wolong National Nature Reserve, Sichuan – Seventeen cubs were born here in 2006.
- Ocean Park, Hong Kong – home to Jia Jia (F), An An (M), Le Le (M), and Ying Ying (F).
- Other places in Asia
- Taipei Zoo, Taipei, Taiwan – home to Tuan Tuan (M) and Yuan Yuan (F).
- Chiang Mai Zoo, Chiang Mai, Thailand – home to Chuang Chuang (M), Lin Hui (F), and Lin Bing, a female cub born May 27, 2009
- Adventure World, Shirahama, Wakayama – Until recently, home to Ei Mei (M), Mei Mei (F), Rau Hin (F), Ryu Hin and Syu Hin (male twins), and Kou Hin (M). In December 2006, twin cubs were born to Ei Mei and Mei Mei. Two cubs, Eiihin (M) and Meihin (F), were born to Rau Hin on September 13, 2008. Mei Mei, a mother of ten cubs, died on October 15, 2008.
- Oji Zoo, Kobe, Hyōgo – home of Kou Kou (M), Tan Tan (F) 
- River Safari, a new park under Wildlife Reserves Singapore, Singapore – to receive two pandas in 2012.
- Adelaide Zoo, Adelaide – home to Wang Wang (M) and Funi (F). They arrived on November 28, 2009, and went on display on December 14. They are expected to stay for a minimum of 10 years, and are the only Giant Pandas living in the Southern Hemisphere.
- Zoologischer Garten Berlin, Berlin, Germany – home of Bao Bao, age 32, the oldest male panda living in captivity; he has been in Berlin for 25 years and has never reproduced.
- Tiergarten Schönbrunn, Vienna, Austria – home to Yang Yang (F) and Long Hui (M), born in Wolong, China in 2000. Their first cub, Fu Long (M) was born on August 23, 2007 at the zoo and returned to China in 2009. He was the first to be born in Europe in 25 years. A second cub was born here on August 23, 2010, exact three years after Fu Long's birth.
- Zoo Aquarium, Madrid, Spain – home of Bing Xing (M) and Hua Zuiba (F). Arrived in Madrid on September 8, 2007. They gave birth to two cubs on September 7, 2010. In 1978 China presented the King of Spain with two pandas, Shao Shao and Quian Quiang. Their cub, Chu-lin, born in 1982 died in 1996. Chu-lin was the first panda born in captivity using artificial insemination in Europe.
- The Edinburgh Zoo signed an agreement with the Wolong Nature Preserve on 10 January 2011 to obtain two Giant Pandas, Tian Tian (F) and Yang Guang (M).
As of 2007, five North American zoos have Giant Pandas:
- Chapultepec Zoo, Mexico City – home of Xiu Hua, born on June 25, 1985, Shuan Shuan, born on June 15, 1987, and Xin Xin, born on July 1, 1990 from Tohui (Tohui born on Chapultepec Zoo on July 21, 1981 and died on November 16, 1993), all females.
- San Diego Zoo, San Diego, California – home of Bai Yun (F), Gao Gao (M), and Yun Zi (M).
- US National Zoo, Washington, D.C. – home of Mei Xiang (F) and Tian Tian (M).
- Zoo Atlanta, Atlanta, Georgia – home of Lun Lun (F), Yang Yang (M), Xi Lan (M), and an as yet unnamed cub born 3 November 2010. 
- Memphis Zoo, Memphis, Tennessee
Notable North American–born pandas
- Tohui (Nahuatl word for kid), born July 21, 1981, died November 16, 1993; female. Chapultepec Zoo, Mexico City. Was the first giant panda that was born and survived in captivity outside China. Her parents were Ying Ying and Pe Pe.
- Hua Mei, born 1999 in the San Diego Zoo and returned to China 2004.
- Mei Sheng, born 2003 at the San Diego Zoo, returned to China 2007.
- Tai Shan, born July 9, 2005 at the National Zoo in Washington, returned to China 2010.
- Su Lin, born August 2, 2005 at the San Diego Zoo and moved to China 2010.
- Mei Lan, born September 6, 2006 at Zoo Atlanta, returned to China 2010.
- Zhen Zhen, born August 3, 2007 at the San Diego Zoo and moved to China 2010.
- Xi Lan, born August 30, 2008 at Zoo Atlanta. 
- Yun Zi, born August 5, 2009 at the San Diego Zoo.
In popular culture
The first sequences of pandas in the wild were shot by Franz Camenzind for American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in about 1982. They were bought by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Natural History Unit for their weekly magazine show Nature.
Recently, Natural History New Zealand (NHNZ) has featured pandas in two documentaries. Panda Nursery (2006) featured China’s Wolong National Nature Reserve in the mountains in Sichuan Province; forty Giant Pandas and a dedicated team of staff play a crucial role in ensuring the survival of the species. As part of the Reserve’s panda breeding program, a revolutionary new method of rearing twin cubs called ‘swap-raising’ has been developed. Each cub is raised by both its natural mother and one of the Reserve’s veterinarians, Wei Rongping, to increase the chances of both cubs surviving. Growing Up: Giant Panda (2003) featured Chengdu Giant Panda Center in south-west China as one of the best in the world. Yet with female pandas' short fertility cycles and low birth rates, raising the captive panda population is an uphill battle.
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- Lumpkin, Susan; Seidensticker, John (2007). Giant Pandas. London: Collins. ISBN 0-06-120578-8 (An earlier edition is available as The Smithsonian Book of Giant Pandas, Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002, ISBN 1-56098-038-4.)
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