The Black & White Truth About Giant Pandas

Actually, given that this is ‘just a blog post’, I’m not going to go and dig out the sources and reference all the points I’m about to make. Therefore, to call this the absolute, 100% accurate truth about giant pandas is perhaps over selling. However, my hope is that this will provide a counter point to the many misconceptions and myths that have built up about these bears over the past decades. I’m going to attempt to address the most common misconceptions, some not so common misconceptions and, since it’s my blog, I’m going to include my own thoughts and opinions on giant panda conservation.

Is it a bear?

Yes, it is. Giant pandas are one of the oldest offshoots of the modern bear lineage. Like red panda, giant pandas were once thought to be closely related to racoons; however, each of these animals – through genetic and fossil research – has been placed into separate taxonomic families.

Racoons lie in the pryconidae family which includes, well, lots of animals that look a bit like racoons, really e.g. coatis, olingos and ringtails.

Red pandas occupy their very own family called aluridae. While they are distantly related to modern racoons, there’s enough of a difference between them to classify as their own family.

Giant pandas are a part of the ursidae family. In the same way that humans, chimps and gorillas share a common ancestor, giant pandas share a common ancestor with every other bear alive today. Their taxonomic name, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, literally means ‘black and white, cat-footed bear’.

How can a bear be vegetarian?

One of the main constituents in the diets of some brown and black bears are berries and fruits. Even polar bears, often cited as the only truly carnivorous bear, have been known to eat fruits and berries where available. Most people come across wild bears while they’re picking through bins for food, and I’d be willing to bet they’re not just in there for the meat scraps. In other words, bears are omnivores – they’ll basically eat whatever they can find – and giant pandas, being bears, are no different.

Okay, they’re a bit different. Giant pandas (which I’m just going to call ‘pandas’ from now on) are basically bears that got really, really good at eating grass – bamboo is just a type of grass. A long time ago (a good 6-8 million years, at least), some bears – most likely a black Asiatic bear ancestor type – was surrounded by loads of bamboo and not much else; certainly nothing that was as easy to obtain. So, these bears started including the bamboo in their diet. After lots and lots of generations, they had got so good at eating bamboo that they didn’t actually need much else to survive.

Specifically, pandas are much better than other bears – and possibly more than any other omnivore – at digesting grass. Compared to other bears they have much smaller canine teeth, much larger molars, and much longer digestive tracts. This length of the gut allows more time for digestion to occur as the food passes through. They also possess some pretty unique gut bacteria thought to be closely involved with the breakdown of cellulose.

No one is suggesting that pandas are anywhere near as good at living on grass as ruminants like cows, sheep and deer – they don’t have the highly specialised equipment like multiple stomachs or the ability to ‘chew the cud’. Pandas also have to eat a lot of bamboo to stay alive – roughly ⅓ of their body weight (or 30-40kilos) in bamboo every day. However, they clearly are capable of getting enough energy from bamboo to keep all systems running.

A low energy diet leads to many physiological adaptations and a pandas brain – the brain being the most energy intensive organ in the body – is comparatively small given the size of a panda. The same thing is seen in another mammal – the koala (not a bear!). The koala is a strict, 100% vegetarian and as a result has the smallest relative brain size of any mammal. [On a quick side note, koalas don’t get drunk from gut fermentation; that’s another myth.]

Perhaps the most obvious indication that pandas aren’t as adept at vegetarianism as ruminants is shown in their activity; or rather, their lack of activity. Your average panda will sleep between 10-16 hours per day. A typical day involves waking up every few hours, stuffing their face till full, then sleeping for a few more hours while digestion provides enough energy to wake up and stuff their face again. Throw in some scent marking, maybe a bit of play, and that’s pretty much it. It might not sound like much of a life (or a very good life, depending on your point of view), but it’s good enough for a panda.

But to get back to the original point, pandas are not actually vegetarian. Pandas are known to eat 25 of the 1200 different species of bamboo out there, but this only makes up 98-99% of their diet. The rest of their diet is, pretty much, whatever they can find. As mentioned, they don’t really have enough energy to go hunting, but while foraging in the bamboo they will eat fruits, berries and vegetables, yes, but also small rodents, insects and also any meat they come across e.g. carrion. In captivity, some pandas are known to refuse meat when offered, however their diet does need a bit of protein in it and in many cases a supplement is offered in the form of the mysterious Panda Cake. While the ingredients are generally known only to panda keepers, it includes eggs, soy protein, flour and rice.

Personally, I have witnessed a panda bite the head of a starling and eat the rest of it like a mars bar. They are not vegetarian.

Pandas are really bad at breeding!

No they’re not. Want proof? They’ve been around for at least 6 million years. Humans have been around for, maybe, 200,000. Pandas win.

Also, they’re really not bad at breeding; at least, not if they’re left alone. There are actually two reasons as to why pandas have this bad reputation.

They don’t breed in the wild!

A couple of hundred years ago, most of central and south east china was covered in bamboo forest. Within the forest around 300,000 pandas went about their largely sedate lives. About forty years ago, the bamboo forest only really existed within the Sichuan province, in a small patch of mountains that almost border Tibet. Today, there is only around 30% of the bamboo forest compared to what there was forty years ago. The massive destruction of the bamboo forests led to a reduction in panda numbers from the hundreds of thousands to only an estimated 1000 in the 1970’s. Finally, sense kicked in and conservation measures were put into effect, effectively preventing any more large scale deforestation. In the late 1980’s, another survey put panda numbers, again, at about 1000. So why hadn’t the panda numbers start to increase? Were they just crap at breeding, or was a there a more plausible explanation? (Don’t answer; I’m being rhetorical/facetious/passive aggressive).

While the deforestation had stopped, what the pandas were left with, rather than one big area of bamboo forest, was a lot of small, isolated pockets of bamboo forest, each with its own population of pandas. In other words, not all the pandas could get to each other. When breeding season rolled around, there was a limited choice in mates. Breeding season lasts approximately2-3 months. In the last weeks, male pandas wander off, looking for females. In the ideal conditions of the large forests a male panda could mate with up to 9 receptive females. However, in the small, isolated pockets of existing bamboo forest, some males were lucky to find even 4 females to mate with. So, pandas were still being born in the wild (obviously, since the numbers never really declined between the 70’s and 80’s), there simply weren’t as many pandas being born compared to before the deforestation and isolation.

As if to add insult to injury, in the very small populations, inbreeding has resulted in serious health problems such as infertility and disfigurement. In other words, they’re suffering because they can breed!

They don’t breed in captivity!

The first pandas appeared in zoos, in China, in the 1950’s. They started to gain popularity in the 1960’s, but there were very few successful panda births in captivity. It wasn’t actually until 1993 that all the smart people in the zoos finally decided to sit down and figure out just what pandas need! Following on from the incredibly productive and successful sharing of data, knowledge and expertise, there are now around 350 captive pandas in the world; with only one or two exceptions, all are captive bred (the others tend to be ‘rescue’ bears from the wild; no responsible zoo will take an animal from the wild unless it is in serious danger of death or extinction).

It would be foolish to say that breeding pandas is easy, but it is equally foolish to suggest that any animal that is alive on the planet today is bad at breeding. Pandas have a low reproductive rate, but not a poor one. Like almost any animal today, place a number of them (12 should do for a viable panda population) into an environment with adequate resources and their population will grow to fill it. On paper, panda females are capable of raising one cub every year, though in practise this is usually one cub every 2-3 years. Given that, in the wild, pandas can live into their early 20s, that’s plenty of panda babies to grow a population.

No, seriously, they’re crap at breeding!!

One fact that is often thrown up to illustrate how bad at breeding they are or ‘how little they care about their own survival’ is the “2-day pregnancy window”. The fact that a female panda can only become pregnant during 2 days out of the entire year is often lauded as proof that they are “a waste of space and we shouldn’t even be bothered trying to save them if they can only be bothered getting pregnant for a couple of days each year” (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the general jist of these comments).

First of all, oestrus (that important period in which conception can occur) in female pandas can actually last anywhere from 1-9 days, however, I’m being pedantic and the average is indeed 2-3 days. Doesn’t sound like a lot and, I suppose, it’s not. Know what other animal can only get pregnant for 2 days out of the year? Sheep! Yes, sheep. Those little ‘bah-bah’ buggers covering the hills can only get pregnant for 2-3 days out of the year. With cows it’s 5 days. Horses have 12 days. Red deer only have a matter of hours (though they do cycle several times over a period of a month or so). Now while most of these examples are domestic animals – and as such have humans to ‘help’ things along, the point I’m trying to make is that it doesn’t matter how long you have, it’s what you do with the time that counts.

A wild animal, specialised in its own environment, doesn’t need to spend the entire year looking for a mate. It’s got much more important things to do like find food, shelter, and avoid being food for something else. Then, when the time is right, every year, it devotes its energy to mating. Once that’s done, it’s back to the usual grind. So long as nothing interferes with the natural order, who’s to say that that is a bad set up?

But they sit on their cubs and kill them!

Everything I’ve heard about this is anecdotal. I’m not saying it’s never happened, but I’d bet money that such incidents are as common with any other animal you care to mention i.e. rare.

However, I’d also be willing to bet that some panda mothers eat their cubs, but only in specific circumstances. There has been recent news about how amazing it is that a panda recently gave birth to triplets. Personally, I don’t think it’s that amazing, or valuable to conservation of the species. Most panda births produce one cub. With one cub, the developing foetus gets all the resources thus resulting in – most likely – a fit and healthy panda baby. In the case of twins (25% of the time in the wild, slightly more in captivity), any in-vitro resources have been divided between the two, thus potentially compromising both offspring.

A female panda, because of her low energy diet, cannot produce enough milk for more than one cub. In the wild, when twins are born, the mother picks the fittest one and devotes her energy to ensuring that one survives. This might sound harsh by human standards, but it’s the smart thing to do in the numbers game of life in the wild. In those cases, though I’ve yet to find a source I’m willing to quote, I’d bet money that mummy panda chows down on the weaker cub; after all, food is food, and when you’ve got a baby to provide for… I’m told that anything goes.

So, you can see why I’m opposed to a celebration of triplets. At the very least, two of those cubs will need to be hand reared, thus making them less like ‘pandas’ and more like ‘hand reared pandas’. The practise of swapping panda cubs between keepers and mothers is a known practice, but who wants to raise a panda mother that’s okay with some humans swiping the cub out from under her nose occasionally. To me, that’s the kind of bad panda mother we should be concerned about. Fortunately, I believe that this practice is being phased out.

Okay, but still, why does everyone lose their shit over pandas?

I think it’s the ears, personally. They have proper teddy bear ears and I think that’s what makes them ‘cute!’ Also pop-culture, spiritual significance, iconic status, blah, blah, blah.

At the end of the day, pandas have an important role to play not just in panda conservation, but in conservation as a whole. Pandas are an iconic and widely recognised symbol of conservation. This is due, in no small part, to the World Wildlife Fund using the panda in their logo (partially because it’s cheaper to print leaflets in black and white). Today, there are currently over 50 pandas in zoos outside of China, all over the world, and they are all a part of an important conservations strategy. I once read of seven key ways in which pandas are important, but these are the three I remember most:

  1. They generate money for the hosting zoo, which is channelled into conservation.
  2. They provide opportunities for research, which in turn supports conservation.
  3. They make small pandas, which feeds into point 1 (everybody comes to see the baby panda).

Let me explain in a bit more detail. People will always come to see pandas. They will travel hundreds of miles to see them. This influx – in fact it’s always an increase in visitor numbers – generates lots of money for the hosting zoo. The hosting zoo sends some of this money back to the panda conservation groups in China. It’s pretty accurate to say that pandas are rented from china, but the increased revenue that comes from having pandas means that they pretty much pay for themselves; pandas are an investment.

The Chinese conservation groups use the money in panda conservation e.g. they buy up land and build corridors of bamboo forest between existing stands, thus re-connecting the bamboo forest and panda populations that are left. The result is less inbreeding and an increased birth rate in the wild. However, pandas aren’t the only species that suffered from the massive destruction of the bamboo forests. The replanting, reconnecting and protection of the bamboo forest is good news for everything that calls them home, such as the golden snub-nosed monkey, the golden salamander, and loads of plants and bryophytes that nobody cares about.

Closer to home, a responsible zoo (and I would imagine it’s quite hard to get pandas if you’re not a responsible zoo) will plough the extra revenue back into their own conservation projects. For example, the presence of pandas could mean more money for research on chimpanzees in Africa, protection of wildcats in Scotland, and captive breeding of a near-extinct snail species in Indonesia, all stemming from the projects of a single zoo in an entirely different country. Additionally, the money may be used to upgrade existing enclosures and facilities at the zoo itself, thus benefiting any number of animals and species.

Research, in the simplest terms, means we learn more about pandas. This means we are better able to look after them and their needs. Also, science rocks, so there’s that.

A baby panda inevitably means an increase in visitors because, you know, baby pandas. I’d personally argue as to whether or not we actually need any more baby pandas in captivity. Unless there’s something I don’t know (entirely likely), I’m pretty sure that 350 individuals provides a viable captive population for re-introduction to the wild (and that is one of the main reasons for any zoo existing). So other than the financial gain (and all the aforementioned stuff that comes with it), I’m not clear on the conservation benefit of pushing for baby pandas. Perhaps someone can enlighten me on this.

Oh! But what about those pandas that fake a pregnancy to get better food?

Yeah, pandas don’t do that. That’s, like, mid-level Machiavellian shit and, as discussed, pandas probably don’t have the brain size or the energy to engineer that level of deception.

It’s been believed for a while that pandas have a high instance of phantom pregnancies. In other words, the females’ body will go through the motions of a pregnancy – hormones, increased appetite, increased activity and, almost conversely, more time sleeping – but at the end of it all, when a baby would normally drop out, nothing appears and the female goes back to normal. To suggest that a female panda could trigger these physiological changes at will is, frankly, ridiculous.

There has often been a great deal of uncertainty as to whether a female panda is actually pregnant, or merely experiencing a phantom pregnancy. This is because while hormones and behaviour are relatively easy to monitor, these would be identical in either case. An ultrasound can provide definite proof of a growing embryo, but this requires both a co-operative panda and the luck/skill to find a target that, at birth, is less than 100g and only about 6 inches long. Now while most vets that work with pandas are, more than likely, experts in their field, that still requires a bear that’s willing to lie down on her side of the bars and effectively let you rub her tummy. Thus, in many cases, it simply isn’t possible to determine, 100%, whether a pregnancy is real. It is not unknown for a successful ultrasound to turn up a negative result, only to have the panda keepers find an extra bear in the enclosure a month or so later.

Additionally, recent thinking suggests that pandas do not, in fact, experience phantom pregnancies any more frequently than other animals; it may simply be that many of the pregnancies thought to be phantom, were simply real pregnancies that did not carry to full term. Pandas, like most animals, have oestrus cycles rather than menstrual cycles (humans, bonobos and some fruit bats have menstrual cycles). Thus, when a foetus aborts, rather than being ejected from the womb it is instead re-absorbed. Thus the mother gets some of the investment back (potentially increasing the chances of a successful pregnancy next time around). What this means is that when a panda does have a real, but failed pregnancy, there’s no ‘smoking gun’ to indicate what’s happened.

The good news is that recent developments (SCIENCE!) are furnishing us with new and potentially more accurate ways to find out exactly what is going on inside mummy pandas’ belly. I’m not going to comment on that till I’ve done the reading, except to say two words: protein markers.


So, all in all panda conservation is just one part of conservation as a whole. The reason people lose their shit over pandas as opposed to “more important species” is probably just because, as we confirmed at the start of this rambling post, pandas are bears, and all bears rock.

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