The History of My Favorite Animal

By: Sean Choe

Image from The Telegraph


In the past, pandas were thought to be rare and noble creatures – the Empress Dowager Bo was buried with a panda skull in her vault. The grandson of Emperor Taizong of Tang is said to have given Japan two pandas and a sheet of panda skin as a sign of goodwill. Unlike many other animals in Ancient China, pandas were rarely thought to have medical uses. The few known uses include the Sichuan tribal peoples' use of panda urine to melt accidentally swallowed needles, and the use of panda pelts to control menses as described in the Qin Dynasty encyclopedia Erya. The creature named mo (貘) mentioned in some ancient books has been interpreted as giant panda. The dictionary Shuowen Jiezi (Eastern Han Dynasty) says that the mo, from Shu (Sichuan), is bear-like, but yellow-and-black, although the older Erya describes mo simply as a "white leopard". The interpretation of the legendary fierce creature pixiu (貔貅) as referring to the giant panda is also common. During the reign of the Yongle Emperor (early 15th century), his relative from Kaifeng sent him a captured zouyu (騶虞), and another zouyu was sighted in Shandong. Zouyu is a legendary "righteous" animal, which, similarly to a qilin, only appears during the rule of a benevolent and sincere monarch. It is said to be fierce as a tiger, but gentle and strictly vegetarian, and described in some books as a white tiger with black spots. The comparative obscurity of the giant panda throughout most of China's history is illustrated by the fact that, despite there being a number of depictions of bears in Chinese art starting from its most ancient times, and the bamboo being one of the favorite subjects for Chinese painters, there are no known pre-20th-century artistic representations of giant pandas. 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 which went to live at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. In 1938, five giant pandas were sent to London. Activities such as these were halted because of wars; in subsequent decades, the West knew little of giant pandas.

Image from Cutest Paw


The giant panda’s black and white coat and prominent black eye patches have made it one of the best known species, although it is among the shyest and rarest animals in the world. The giant panda is a solitary animal, spending about two-thirds of its day feeding and the remainder resting. Although classed as a carnivore, the giant panda feeds almost exclusively on the stems, leaves and fresh young shoots of bamboo. There are about 20 different species of bamboo that pandas will eat. However bamboo is so nutritionally poor that the pandas have to consume up to 20kg each day, which can take up to 16 hours. The extra digit on the panda’s hand helps them to tear the bamboo and their gut is covered with a thick layer of mucus to protect against splinters. The giant panda has the largest molar teeth of any carnivore. Their lower jaw has an extra molar; their molar and pre-molar teeth are adapted to slice and crush tough plants stems. Their strong jaws are capable of crushing bamboo stems up to 4cm in diameter. Pandas may climb as high as 4,000 meters to feed on higher slopes in the summer season. They may appear sedentary, but they are skilled tree-climbers and efficient swimmers. Pandas can takes refuge in the nearest tree when in danger from predators such as brown bears, leopards, or wild dogs. Its paws are broad with long retractile claws and furry undersides which help it grip when climbing. Pandas do not appear to use a particular resting place, but simply lie down on the ground wherever they happen to be. The giant panda does not hibernate but it will shelter in caves or hollow trees in very cold weather. The panda uses its stump-like tail like a brush to mark territory with ‘scent’ produced by scent glands located beneath the tail. Pandas have a highly developed sense of smell that males use to avoid each other and to find females for mating in the spring. Five months after mating, a single cub is born in a nest of bamboo. It is rare for a female panda to give birth to twins; if she does so, the second cub is unlikely to survive. The blind infants weigh only about 140g at birth and cannot crawl until they reach three months of age. They are born white, and develop their much loved colouring later. It stays with its mother for about 18 months, until it is independent enough to establish its own territory. The Chinese once hunted it, believing that its pelt provided magical protection against evil spirits. Today, however, hunting carries strict penalties in China. There are only about 1,000 giant pandas left in the wild. They are classified as Endangered. The main cause of the panda’s decline now is the erosion of its habitat due to the clearing of areas for crop cultivation. Another reason is the natural die-back of the local variety of bamboo. The panda will not migrate to feed in new areas, because it is hemmed in by human settlements, and so it frequently starves to death. In China, measures are now under way to save the giant panda. To help increase its numbers, special sanctuaries have been established with sufficient space for 500-600 pandas. Both Chinese and American scientists are studying the animal’s habits and instituting conservation programmes.

Extinction Graph on Pandas:

Year Amount of Pandas
1974 1,000
1977 1,000
2004 1,550
2006 2,500
2007 1,600