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Jan 22, 2018

Black (and White) Beauty

 

Giant Pandas have been roaming the forests of Southern and Eastern China for the past two million years, but their popularity only spread around the world in the 1920s. The Giant Panda caught the Western eye when sons of US President Teddy Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt Jr and his brother Kermit shot a panda upon spotting it. Almost a decade later, in 1936, the first panda arrived in a Western Zoo, beginning the world’s love affair with these giant bears. These lovable animals have come to be almost as closely associated with China as Dragons, in the popular consciousness, over the past few decades.

 

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The Giant Panda, which has the body of a giant bear, is easily identified by its characteristic black fur patches around the eyes. Their thumbs, which they use to hold bamboo sticks, differentiates pandas from the polar bear and the sloth bear, and brings them closer to the red panda. For a very long time, it was believed that these two species named ‘panda’ were related, though DNA tests recently proved that belief wrong. While the Giant Panda is a true type of bear, the Red Panda’s closest relatives are raccoons.

Although pandas do not have many natural predators, panda cubs are sometimes attacked by snow leopards, eagles or feral dogs. The reason why pandas, like so many other animals, have been driven to the edge of extinction is the human species. Pandas live in dense forest cover with bamboo trees, which is vanishing at alarming rates due to human encroachment. The animals that once roamed China freely have been driven to the highest slopes of the mountains. Now, only six patches of such forests are left throughout China, where the Giant Panda is found in its natural habitat.

 

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Putting pandas in the zoos started in the West, and today around 300 pandas live in captivity throughout the Globe. This number might not seem big, but it’s huge when you realize the total population of pandas left. There are only 1,864 pandas remaining on this planet. Pandas are kept in captivity in an attempt to help increase the panda population, but it’s unclear if it’s actually helping the cause. The main aim of breeding pandas in captivity is to release them in the wild at a certain point. The two attempts made in the past have been unsuccessful, which raises certain questions about the millions of dollars being spent on the captive breeding of pandas.

Many experts believe that spending these large amounts of money on maintaining the natural habitat of pandas, instead, can turn out to be more beneficial. The breeding of pandas as crowd-pullers in zoos needs to be stopped, they argue.

In counterpoint is the argument that keeping pandas in the public eye is important, in order to increase awareness about panda conservation and helps raise funds.

Two Giant Pandas came to Hong Kong as a result of a gift from China in the year 1999. Since Hong Kong is much hotter and more humid than the natural habitat of pandas in the southwestern Sichuan province of China, simulated temperatures and humidity were set up and maintained in the Ocean Park Zoo by the authorities. Both pandas lived peacefully amongst humans, and later another pair of pandas was added to the group.

 

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One of the pandas, Jia-Jia, became the longest surviving Panda in human captivity. She lived to be 37 where the natural lifespan of Pandas is below 20, dying as recently as the year 2016. There are still three more pandas in Ocean Park, and they attract huge crowds, both children and adults.

China has given pandas on loan to around 17 countries and Giant Pandas can be found in zoos around the world from countries as far-flung as Australia, Canada, the USA, Singapore, and Spain, among others. Even today, though, the natural habitat of pandas is limited only to the Sichuan province of China.

Mainland China provides several opportunities to watch Pandas thrive in their natural habitat. There are several parks set up to facilitate human interaction with the pandas, with Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Center being the most popular. The Beijing Zoo is also popular, but the Chengdu Breeding Center also offers the exciting chance of closer interaction with a real panda!

 

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Dujiangyan Panda Base and Wolong Panda Center not only provide the opportunity to look at the pandas but people can actually take pictures and even hike in the natural habitat of these cute animals.

The next time you get the chance, do visit these endangered, beautiful creatures that have become a symbol of hope for programmes like the World Wildlife Fund, working to rescue animals from the verge of extinction and re-establish them on the planet which is their home. Let’s work to bring these species back to their natural homes. Let’s help them thrive again.

 

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