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Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca)

The scientific name means, "black and white cat-footed animal."



The panda first appeared 2 to 3 million years ago. Originally, panda territory included South and East China and parts of Myanmar and Northern Vietnam. Fossil evidence shows that pandas lived almost as far north as Beijing. Today, pandas are found in six isolated forest areas in Sichuan, Gansu, and Shaanxi provinces in China.


Pandas live in high mountainous areas, usually from 2,700 to 3,700 meters (8,500 to 11,500 feet) above sea level, that have natural forested areas with fir, spruce, and bamboo. Today, only 29 small, fragmented areas have the appropriate habitat to support the world's existing panda populations.  



For years, scientists have argued about whether the panda is more closely related to the bear or the raccoon. Bears, raccoons, and dogs all descended from the same common ancestor that lived over 24 million years ago.


The panda has some characteristics common to bears, but other characteristics are not like bears. For example, their head is larger than a bear's, their skull and dental structure do not resemble a bear's, their hind feet lack a heel pad, they do not hibernate, and they do not walk on their hind legs like bears. Some physical characteristics of the panda closely resemble the raccoon: the male genitalia of both the raccoon and the panda are small and pointed to the rear.    


Recent DNA  / serological studies have determined that the panda is more closely related to bears than to raccoons. The panda's closest relative is the spectacled bear of South America.


Physical Characteristics

Pandas are about the size of the American black bear. An adult panda is typically 1.5 meters long (4 - 5 feet) and weighs about 75 to 135 kilograms (165 to 353 pounds). Males are 10% to 20% heavier than females. Pandas live between 18 to 25 years in the wild.


Pandas have large molars and large jaw muscles extending from their jaw to the top of their head that crush the fibrous plant material and tough stalks of their main food, bamboo.


Pandas are most active at twilight and night. Their pupils have vertical slits, like snakes and many nocturnal animals, which allow them to see better at night.


Flexible forepaws and an enlarged wrist bone that works as an opposable thumb are useful for handling bamboo.


Like humans, pandas walk with both their heel and toes make in contact with the ground. Hairs on the soles of their feet give them traction and reduce heat loss on ice and snow.


Pandas can climb trees. Usually, however, only cubs or females in heat climb trees.


The panda's coat has two layers: a coarse outer layer and a dense, wooly under layer. Their fur is slightly oily which prevents water penetration in the cool, damp climate where the pandas live.



Pandas are mostly with white with black across their shoulders; on their arms, legs, and ears; and around their eyes. Some scientists speculate that their coloration provides camouflage during the winter. Other scientists feel that their conspicuous coat enables the solitary pandas to spot one another. This way, they can avoid each other during most of the year and for males and females can find one another during the breeding season.


Some scientists think that the pandas' black eyes and ears make them more intimidating. Large black eyes are threatening to many species. With their black ears, pandas may look as though they have two sets of eyes. When interacting with other pandas, an aggressive panda will bob its head and display both its eyes and ears, and a submissive panda will turn its head to the side or cover its eyes with its paws.



Pandas are in the carnivore family and, for the most part, have the digestive system of a carnivore. Long ago, for reasons scientists do not understand (perhaps because they could not compete well for food with other carnivores), pandas adapted to a vegetarian diet. Pandas now feed almost exclusively on the stems and leaves of bamboo. Although, ninety-five to ninety-nine percent of the pandas' diet is bamboo, they also eat flowers, vines, mushroom, grass, fish, and small rodents.


The panda's digestive system is partially adapted for processing bamboo: they have a tough throat and esophageal lining, thick stomach lining, and enlarged colon surface. However, their short intestines are unable digest cellulose and, therefore, do not remove all of the nutrients from the bamboo.


Pandas only digest about 20% of what they eat while cattle digest 60%. Therefore, pandas must eat a lot to get the nourishment they need. Pandas consume 15 to 30 kilograms (33 to 66 pounds) of food per day. They eat for 10 to 16 hours per day and cover over one kilometer a day while eating. When they are not eating, pandas often conserve energy by sleeping.


Pandas excrete up to 40 kilograms (88 pounds) per day. Because their feces eliminate more water than their food brings in, they usually drink at least once per day.


Territory and Communication

Although researchers in the Qinling mountains in Shaanxi report pandas living in groups of 2 to 28 individuals, pandas are generally thought to be solitary animals. They live in well-defined territories. Males' territories, 3.8 to 6.5 square kilometers (1.5 to 2.5 square miles), often overlap several females' territories, 4.6 square kilometers (1.8 square miles). 


During most of the year, pandas communicate by rubbing an acidic-smelling substance, secreted by glands surrounding the ano-genital area, on tree trunks and stones. They also scratch on trees. Each panda's scent is unique and pandas use the scent to identify each other. Females leave scent to attract males, and males leave scent to mark their territory and to attract females.


Pandas also communicate vocally. They have up to 11 distinct calls. Although researchers don't know what all of their vocalizations are for, during mating males bark to intimidate each other, and courting pairs emit a goat-like bleating sound.



Pandas breed once a year. Mating season is from March to May and individual females are in heat from 2 to 7 days. During her heat, a female may mate with several males.


After the female's egg has been fertilized, it divides a few times, then it floats free in the uterus for several weeks and does not develop further. In June or July, the embryo attaches to the uterine wall and develops. Young are born 8 weeks later, from August to September.


Female pandas deliver 1 to 2 cubs in a rock cavity or hollow tree.



Baby pandas weigh only 90 to 130 grams (3.5 to 4 oz.) at birth - about 1/900th of its mother's weight. Litters of one or two cubs are born. If two cubs are born, the mother usually abandons the weaker cub, and it dies soon after birth.


Infant mortality is high - baby pandas are susceptible to illness and predators (leopards, packs of wild dogs, and eagles).


Cubs are born blind and open their eyes at about 45 days. Young cubs need to nurse as many as 12 times per day. Mothers may leave the den for 3 to 4 hours to feed, leaving the cub vulnerable to predation.


At birth, pandas have white skin. Within 2 weeks, their skin turns gray where eventually the hair will be black. Cubs have panda fur coloration within one month after birth.


The cub starts to crawl at 75 to 90 days. Cubs and mothers play: the mother rolls the cub and wrestles with it and the cub climbs on the mother's back.


Cubs start to eat bamboo at 5 months and are weaned at 6 months. The cub weighs 35 kilograms (80 pounds) at one year and lives with its mother until 18 months.


Panda's reach sexually maturity when they are 4.5 to 6.5 years old.



Pandas are the second most threatened species in the world. Only about 1000 pandas are estimated to live in the wild.


Destruction of the panda's natural habitat is now the major threat to the survival of the species. In the eleven years from 1973 to 1984, suitable panda habitat shrunk by 50 per cent in the six isolated areas where pandas live. Human activity - logging, animal grazing, and agriculture - are the major sources of habitat destruction.


At regular intervals, ranging from 10 to 100 years depending on the species, individual bamboo species flower, seed, and die. Although bamboo regenerates from seed within a year, it can take up to 20 years before the bamboo can support a panda population again. Often, only one species of bamboo grows in an area.


When the bamboo species in one area flowers, pandas have to find other species of bamboo to eat. Often they must move to areas where there are other species of bamboo.


Before the panda habitat became fragmented, bamboo flowering may have been an important feature in maintaining a health population- it forced the pandas to move from their home territory and promoted breeding between different populations.  


As the human population expanded, however, more forests have been cleared for agriculture, grazing, fuel-wood, and timber, and more human settlements and roads have been built. Now, pandas live in isolated islands of forest habitat that are not connected with each other and migration is much more difficult.


Poaching of pandas is not a great threat, few poachers risk the consequences - up to life imprisonment. However, pandas are sometimes caught in snares set for other animals, such as musk deer and takin. These animals are hunted for their meat.


Conservation efforts

Panda conservation began in China during the 1940s. This effort was initially restricted to field research.


In 1963, the Chinese government created Wolong as a forest reserve and Sichuan province established Wanglang as a nature reserve. World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has been working with the Chinese government on panda protection since 1980.


Panda conservation management plans are attempting to increase the pandas' chance for survival by; reducing human activities in panda habitat, rehabilitating panda habitat, adding additional panda reserves, and strengthening conservation education and public awareness.  


Published by Wanglang Nature Reserve, Sichuan Province, China.

Last updated January 22, 2001. Send comments to: roger_ratcliff@hotmail.com