About This Species
Giant pandas are native to south-central China, where their population has suffered from habitat loss and fragmentation. Much of their habitat was lost due to logging, agriculture and infrastructure expansion as the population in the region boomed. The panda's habitat is now largely protected, and a network of nature reserves have helped safeguard the species—for now.
The pandas are a favorite among zoo-goers and conservationists alike. But while they may be cute, as a species they're also terribly inefficient. Due to a quirk of their digestive system, pandas need to eat between 20 and 40 pounds of bamboo each day, which can take 10 to 16 hours of foraging. Female pandas ovulate just once a year, for two to three days, so the window for reproduction is small. And they have a strong preference for their specific habitat, meaning they stick to the area where they're born and don't migrate seasonally, save for some populations that head to higher elevations within their range when temperatures climb.
The giant panda population is beginning to rebound in parts of its range—but that's all relative. Only six of the 33 panda populations have more than 100 individuals. And two-thirds of all wild giant pandas live within nature reserves. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources lists the pandas as vulnerable, meaning they are at high risk of becoming endangered in the wild.
The Giant Panda's Range
Giant pandas used to be widespread throughout southern China, with their range stretching as far north as Beijing and south into Southeast Asia. As the range for bamboo has shrunk, the pandas' habitat followed. During the Pleistocene era, bamboo disappeared as the climate warmed. More recently, in the past several hundred years, bamboo forests have been lost as human populations have expanded. Between 1950 and 2004, China lost nearly a third of its forests, coinciding with a steep drop in panda populations.
Physically, pandas are capable of moving long geographical distances, but they don't like to. They're more prone to short journeys within their preferred habitat. Because of that, a relatively long lifespan of 14 years and a low reproductive rate, pandas are not well suited to adapt to climate change.
Another big challenge that pandas face as the climate changes is their dependence on bamboo. A 2012 study looked at the bamboo in the area covering a quarter of the panda's habitat. The authors found that 80 to 100 percent of the bamboo could disappear by the century's end as temperatures increase. The last hope for bamboo—and for pandas—is that conservation efforts will be able to help move bamboo to higher, cooler elevations.