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Giant panda
Grosser Panda.JPG
Giant panda at the Ocean Park Hong Kong
Conservation status
CITES Appendix I (CITES)
Scientific classification
  • A. m. hastorni
  • A. m. melanoleuca
  • A. m. qinlingensis
Mapa distribuicao Ailuropoda melanoleuca.png
Giant panda range
Giant panda
Giant panda
Panda (Chinese characters).svg
"Panda" in Traditional (top) and Simplified (bottom) Chinese characters
Traditional Chinese 熊貓
Simplified Chinese 熊猫
Literal meaning "bear cat"
Alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 貓熊
Simplified Chinese 猫熊
Literal meaning "cat bear"

The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca, sometimes panda bear or simply panda) is a bear species endemic to China. The name "giant panda" is sometimes used to distinguish it from the red panda. The giant panda has often served as China's national symbol.


The word panda was borrowed into English from French. No conclusive explanation of the origin of the French word panda has been found. The closest candidate is the Nepali word ponya, possibly referring to the wrist bone of the red panda, which is native to Nepal. The Western world originally applied this name to the red panda.


The skull of a giant panda at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History (Catalog Number 259403, collected by David Crockett Graham in Wen Chuan, Sichuan, China, Dec. 1934.
The skeleton (left) and taxidermy model (right) of "Tong Tong", once bred in Ueno Zoo at the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo

Adults measure around 1.2 to 1.9 metres (3 feet 11 inches to 6 feet 3 inches) long, including a tail of about 10–15 cm (4–6 in), and 60 to 90 cm (24 to 35 in) tall at the shoulder. Males can weigh up to 160 kg (350 lb). Females (generally 10–20% smaller than males) can weigh as little as 70 kg (150 lb), but can also weigh up to 125 kg (276 lb). The average weight for adults is 100 to 115 kg (220 to 254 lb).

The giant panda has a body shape typical of bears. It has black fur on its ears, eye patches, limbs and shoulders. The rest of the animal's coat is white. The bear's distinctive coat serves as camouflage in both winter and summer environments. The giant panda's thick, woolly coat keeps it warm in the cool forests of its habitat.


The giant panda lives in a few mountain ranges in central China, mainly in Sichuan, and also in neighbouring Shaanxi and Gansu.


Giant Pandas having a snack
Pandas eating bamboo

Though it belongs to the order Carnivora, the giant panda is a folivore. Bamboo shoots and leaves make up more than 99% of its diet. During the shoot season, which lasts from April to August, they put on a lot of weight, which allows them to get through the nutrient-scarce period from late August to April, when they feed mostly on bamboo leaves. Two of the panda's most distinctive features, its large size and round face, are adaptations to its bamboo diet.

Giant pandas in the wild occasionally eat other grasses, wild tubers, or even meat (birds, rodents, or carrion). In captivity, they may receive honey, eggs, fish, yams, shrub leaves, oranges, or bananas along with specially prepared food. The ancient giant panda was omnivorous 7 million years ago (mya), it only became herbivorous some 2–2.4 mya.


As long as giant pandas spend most of the lives eating, they do not have much time for social interaction. The only exception is the breeding season. However, after mating, the male leaves the female alone to raise the cub.

Pandas communicate through vocalisation and scent marking. They are able to climb and take shelter in hollow trees or rock crevices, but do not have permanent dens. For this reason, pandas do not hibernate in cold seasons. Instead, they move areas with warmer temperatures.

Pandas have been known to cover themselves in horse manure to protect themselves against cold temperatures.

Reproduction and lifespan

A giant panda cub. At birth, the giant panda typically weighs 100 to 200 grams (3 12 to 7 ounces) and measures 15 to 17 centimeters (6 to 7 inches) long.

Pandsa normally give birth to one cub every two years. The gestation period is somewhere between 95 and 160 days. The primary method of breeding giant pandas in captivity is by artificial insemination, as they seemed to lose their interest in mating once they were captured.

Giant pandas give birth to twins in about half of pregnancies. If twins are born, usually only one survives in the wild. The mother will select the stronger of the cubs, and the weaker cub will die due to starvation. The mother is thought to be unable to 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 born, it is pink, blind, and toothless. It weighs only 90 to 130 g (3 14 to 4 12 oz), or about 1/800 of the mother's weight. It nurses from its mother's breast six 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 grey where its hair will eventually become black. Slight pink colour may appear on the cub's fur, as a result of a chemical reaction between the fur and its mother's saliva.

A month after birth, the colour pattern of the cub's fur is fully developed. Its 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 can 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 giant panda typically lives around 20 years in the wild and up to 30 years in captivity.

Chengdu panda breeding
Panda Research and Breeding Center in Chengdu.


Although adult giant pandas have few natural predators other than humans, young cubs can be attacked by snow leopards, yellow-throated martens, eagles, feral dogs, and the Asian black bear. Sub-adults weighing up to 50 kg (110 lb) may be hunted for by leopards.

Western discovery

  • The West first learned of the giant panda on 11 March 1869, when the French missionary Armand David received a skin from a hunter.
  • 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, Floyd Tangier Smith captured and delivered five giant pandas to London, they arrived on 23 December aboard the SS Antenor. These five were the first on British soil and were transferred to London Zoo. One, named Grandma, only lasted a few days. Another, Ming, became London Zoo's first Giant Panda. Her skull is held by the Royal College of Surgeons of England.

Panda diplomacy

Lightmatter panda
Adult male giant panda

In the 1970s, gifts of giant pandas to American and Japanese zoos formed an important part of the diplomacy of the People's Republic of China (PRC), as it marked some of the first cultural exchanges between China and the West. This practice has been termed "panda diplomacy".

By 1984, however, pandas were no longer given as gifts. Instead, China began to offer pandas to other nations only on 10-year loans, under terms including 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 China. Since 1998, because of a WWF lawsuit, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service only allows a US 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. As a result of this change in policy, nearly all the pandas in the world are owned by China. The pandas leased to foreign zoos and any cubs are eventually returned to China.

American zoos generally pay the Chinese government $1 million a year in fees, as part of a typical ten-year contract.


Pandas have been kept in zoos as early as the Western Han Dynasty in China, where the writer Sima Xiangru noted that the panda was the most treasured animal in the emperor's garden of exotic animals in the capital Chang'an (present Xi'an). Not until the 1950s were pandas again recorded to have been exhibited in China's zoos.

Interesting facts about the giant panda

Giant panda Left hand Bone 2
Bones of the left forelimb
  • The giant panda appeared on Chinese Gold Panda coins since 1982 and as one of the five Fuwa mascots of the 2008 Summer Olympics.
  • In China and Taiwan the giant panda is sometimes called "spotted bear", "bamboo bear", or "giant bear cat" ("giant cat bear").
  • Although the giant panda, shares characteristics with both bears and raccoons, the DNA analysis shows that it is a true bear.
  • In its characteristics, the giant panda is more like an ancestor to other living bear species. It is sometimes called a living fossil.
  • The giant panda genome was sequenced in 2009.
  • A 110.45 kg (243.5 lb) giant panda has a canine teeth bite force of 2603.47 newtons.
  • The giant panda's paw has a "thumb" and five fingers; the "thumb" helps it to hold bamboo while eating.
  • The giant panda's tail, measuring 10 to 15 cm (4 to 6 in), is the second-longest in the bear family, behind the sloth bear.
  • A female named Jia Jia was the oldest giant panda ever in captivity; she was born in 1978 and died at an age of 38 on 16 October 2016.
  • The giant pandas' eye patches help them identify one another.
  • Pandas are born with sterile intestines and require bacteria obtained from their mother's feces to digest vegetation.
  • The average giant panda eats as much as 9 to 14 kg (20 to 31 lb) of bamboo shoots a day; it defecates up to 40 times a day.
  • The giant panda is an animal with unique adaptations, and has lived in bamboo forests for millions of years.
  • It has been estimated that an adult panda absorbs 54.8–66.1 mg (0.846–1.020 gr) of cyanide a day through its diet. To prevent poisoning, they have evolved anti-toxic mechanisms to protect themselves.
  • Pandas rely primarily on spatial memory rather than visual memory.
  • The giant panda can attacks humans, presumably out of irritation rather than aggression.
  • Microbes in panda waste are being investigated for their use in creating biofuels from bamboo and other plant materials.
  • Almost all pandas in the world belong to China.
  • Chi Chi at the London Zoo became very popular. This influenced the World Wildlife Fund to use a panda as its symbol.
  • Keeping a panda costs five times more than keeping the next most expensive animal, an elephant.

Threats and conservation

Panda Cub from Wolong, Sichuan, China
Closeup of a seven-month-old panda cub

The giant panda has been a target of poaching by locals since ancient times and by foreigners since it was introduced to the West. Also, as a result of farming, deforestation, and other development, the giant panda has been driven out of the lowland areas where it once lived.

It is a vulnerable species. In 1963, the PRC government set up Wolong National Nature Reserve to save the declining panda population. Many believed the best way to save the pandas was to cage them. In the 1990s, however, several laws (including gun control and the removal of resident humans from the reserves) helped them survive. Wild pandas have started to increase in numbers in some areas, though they still are classified as a rare species.

In 2007, 239 pandas lived in captivity inside China and another 27 outside the country. By December 2014, 49 giant pandas lived in captivity outside China, living in 18 zoos in 13 countries.

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 giant pandas in the wild is on the rise.

By March 2015, the wild giant panda population had increased to 1,864 individuals. In 2016, it was reclassified on the IUCN Red List from "endangered" to "vulnerable", affirming decade-long efforts to save the panda. In July 2021, Chinese authorities also reclassified the giant panda as vulnerable.

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 province of Sichuan and covering seven natural reserves, were inscribed onto the World Heritage List in 2006.

Population chart

Year Wild Change Captivity Change Total Change
1976 1,000 n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
1985 800–1,200 n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
1987 >1,000 n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
1994 1,200 n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
1995 1,000 −200 n/a n/a n/a n/a
2003 1,596 +596 164 n/a 1,760 n/a
2012 n/a n/a 341 +178 n/a n/a
2013 1,864 +268 375 +34 2,239 +479

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