Updated: 2014-01-21 11:22
Zhang Zhihe, chief of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, says the rapid contraction of pandas' habitat is mainly due to human encroachment. Photo Provided to China Daily
At the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, home to 118 captive pandas, many visitors get a sense that China has many pandas. So, they ask, how can we say they are an endangered species?
Major advancements in breeding techniques have secured the captive panda population. However, much greater effort is needed to preserve them in the wild as they remain extremely vulnerable to human intrusion into their native habitat, according to the new book Giant Pandas: Born Survivors published by the Penguin Group (Australia) in association with Penguin (China).
Co-authored by Zhang Zhihe, chief of the base in Southwest China's Sichuan province, and Sarah Bexell, director of conservation education and a research scholar at the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver in the United States, the book answers many questions about one of the world's most beloved - yet misunderstood - species, the giant panda.
Many who visit zoos think giant pandas are lazy, clumsy, have poor survival skills and are not good breeders. The book says this is based on observation of captive animals that do not need to forage for their food, the main activity of wild pandas which are active more than half the time, an average of 14.2 hours a day.
They are highly adept at negotiating their natural habitat and not clumsy at all. Their legs are stout and powerful with stronger fore legs than hind legs.
They walk with their toes turned in, giving them a clumsy appearance, but their sturdy legs allow them to move silently and with remarkable ease over precipitous terrain and through dense bamboo growth, in which humans are extremely clumsy.
Zhang and Bexell think pandas would do well if their habitat had not been decimated by humans. They say pandas are extremely adept breeders when left alone in their natural environment.
"The panda's penis size is often mentioned as a factor in unsuccessful breeding. Like many animals, pandas have diminutive penises, but size is not important for reproduction. What matters is the male's anatomy fits with that of the female and they live species-typical lives in order to learn proper mating rituals and methods. You might be interested to know they are endowed with sizeable testicles," Zhang says.
Jean Pierre Armand David, a French priest, was the first Western explorer to discover and document the giant panda in 1869. He was a famous naturalist for the Musee d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris.
During the 20 years he lived in China, he named and introduced 68 new bird species to the West, as well as over 100 insects and other mammals. He sent a panda specimen back to the museum's Henri Milne Edwards, who in 1870 published a paper declaring the panda a new species.
Giant pandas once enjoyed a very large range and their fossils were first unearthed in Myanmar in 1915 and in China in the early 1920s.