High in dense bamboo
forests in the misty, rainy mountains of
southwestern China lives one of the world’s rarest mammals: the
giant panda, also called the panda. Only about 1,000 of these
black-and-white relatives of bears survive in the wild.
Pandas eat almost nothing but bamboo shoots and leaves.
Occasionally they eat other vegetation, fish, or small animals, but
bamboo accounts for 99 percent of their diets.
fast, they eat a lot, and they spend about 12 hours a day doing it.
The reason: They digest only about a fifth of what they eat.
Overall, bamboo is not very nutritious. The shoots and leaves are
the most valuable parts of the plants, so that’s what a well-fed
panda concentrates on eating. To stay healthy, they have to eat a
lot—up to 15 percent of their body weight in 12 hours—so they eat
Pandas’ molars are very broad and flat. The shape of
these teeth helps the animals crush the bamboo shoots, leaves, and
stems they eat. To get the bamboo to their mouths, they hold the
stems with their front paws, which have enlarged wrist bones that
act as thumbs for gripping.
There are many species of
bamboo. Only a few of these grow at the high altitudes where pandas
live today. A panda should have at least two bamboo species where it
lives, or it will starve.
Giant pandas used to be able to
move quite easily from one mountaintop to another in search of food.
Now the valleys are mostly inhabited by people. Pandas are shy; they
don’t venture into areas where people live. This restricts pandas to
very limited areas. As people continue to farm, log, and develop
land higher and higher up the mountain slopes, the pandas’ habitat
continues to shrink.
And sometimes, when all the bamboo in their area
dies off naturally, pandas starve because they’re unable to move to
new areas where other bamboo species thrive.
Conservation organizations and Chinese government
officials and scientists continue to work toward resolving the
pandas’ isolation problems. Maintaining “bamboo corridors”—strips of
undisturbed land through which pandas can comfortably travel from
mountain to mountain—are one of the many ideas that may help save
the giant panda.
Text by Catherine D. Hughes