A giant panda is a large and docile mammal that inhabits the dense coniferous forests of central China. Though once widespread, this beloved black and white animal has a very small wild population in a relatively limited area, thanks mostly to poaching and habitat encroachment. The giant panda is a symbol of China, and is frequently exchanged between its home country and other nations as a sign of good will and respect.
Though debate has existed for some time, genetic testing finally concluded that pandas are actually a species of bear. They are recognizable by a distinct black and white coat, which makes them a target of illegal poachers. At maturity, the adult panda stands between 2 and 3 feet (about .6-.9 meters) high on all fours and about 5 feet (1.52 m) long, weighing a little over 200 lbs (90.7 kg) on average. In the wild, the giant panda can live to about 20 years of age, while in captivity the average rises to above 30 years. The diet of a panda consists almost entirely of heavy stalks of bamboo, which it crunches with hard, forceful molars.
The giant panda is listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). According to IUCN statistics in 2006, the wild population was believed to be between 1000-2000 animals in the wild. Though the Chinese government and various conservation groups have undertaken numerous attempts to improve habitats and reduce poaching, it is not known whether these measures are helping to revive the wild population.
One of the major deterrents to a thriving population of the giant panda is their reproductive habits. Pandas mate just once a year, giving birth to one or two cubs. Pandas are often not very good mothers, and often abandon or crush one of the cubs shortly after giving birth. Since young pandas remain with their mothers for several years, an adult female will generally only produce a cub every two or three years, further slowing population growth. In captive breeding programs, scientists have frequently resorted to artificial insemination of pandas and hand-rearing babies if the mother attempts to reject the cub.
The Chinese government considers pandas a national treasure, and has undertaken numerous programs to restore the giant panda population. Panda breeding centers are common in China, while the government operates a lending policy of pandas to friendly nations throughout the world. All pandas are officially considered Chinese property, and many are returned to China after participating in breeding programs at international zoos.