The mountains of Southwest China are home to the only population of wild pandas on earth. This area sustains the panda because it is rich with bamboo, which makes up 90 per cent of its diet. The panda population is in danger of extinction due to this specialized diet. Estimates are that only between 1,000 and 1,600 adult pandas exist today, with the loss attributed to the habitat loss and fragmentation. Their survival is uncertain.
Adult pandas are on average about four feet long and 260 pounds. Easily recognizable, this member of the bear family has a white head and body with black ears, legs, and patches above the eyes. Its round face and strong teeth help it eat the large quantities of bamboo it needs. Pandas do not hibernate like most bear species. They travel throughout the year, searching for bamboo sprouts and leaves. Pandas are having difficulty traveling their usual bamboo routes because farming, logging, human habitation, and grazing ranges are often blocking their way. The Chinese government is trying to save the panda by setting aside nature preserves and creating “bamboo corridors” for the panda to travel within.
A panda’s diet can be summed up in one word--bamboo. The panda eats the leaves and shoots of many different species of bamboo, though they rely on about 10 main species. Baby pandas subsist on their mother’s milk alone for the first five to six months, and are completely weaned and eating bamboo exclusively by eight months of age.
This reliance on one menu item makes the panda very vulnerable. If a source of bamboo is eliminated or lost due to human encroachment or natural disaster, the panda cannot adapt easily to eating other foods. However, pandas have been known to eat small rodents and carrion on occasion.
The panda is not anatomically an herbivore. Its digestive system is like that of carnivorous animals, but it eats only vegetation. Because the panda cannot break down fibrous plants like cows and sheep do, with their multi-chambered stomachs, bamboo has very little intrinsic nutrition. The panda must eat constantly to get as many nutrients as possible. Pandas eat 10 to 14 hours a day. Giant pandas can eat up to 40 pounds of bamboo leaves in a single day.
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