The giant panda and the disappearance of the bamboo forests



by LORENZO CIOTTI

The giant panda and the disappearance of the bamboo forests

Giant pandas are an endangered species, continuously threatened by the impoverishment of their habitat and a very low birth rate. About 1,600 are believed to survive in the natural state. The Zoological Society of London, based on criteria of evolutionary uniqueness and small population, considers the giant panda one of the 100 mammal species at greatest risk of extinction.

To overcome the lack of information on pandas, it was decided to build a research center in the Wolong Valley in China. A captive breeding center was also created. The results of this research were used to draw up detailed plans to create and manage reserves in which to place the remaining specimens.

These projects include, among other things, the creation of forest corridors that connect the various reserves, an intervention on the territory aimed at the reintroduction of numerous species of bamboo, in order to prevent the plants from dying in the same period, and the realization of initiatives with which to induce the inhabitants of forests and villages to proceed selectively in the distribution of bamboo forests.

However, in recent years, the risk of the giant panda has decreased relatively to such an extent that it is no longer properly considered endangered. The panda feeds on bamboo shoots, plants that die after flowering: in its habitat there are numerous species and this prevents them from blooming and dying simultaneously.

However, in areas contaminated by human intervention there are often few types of bamboo left. In 1975, with unfortunately simultaneous flowering of all remaining bamboo species, the pandas were left without food and were decimated.

In the course of its evolution, the panda had developed the ability to cope with periodic plant deaths by traveling long distances in search of new forests - migrations that also served to prevent specimens of the same group from mating with each other.

However, since the panda's habitat has been subjected to processes of degradation and deforestation, this possibility of taking refuge in other forests in which to find new food and mate has failed. Despite the fact that according to the taxonomy it is a carnivore, its diet is essentially that of a herbivore.

In fact, it feeds almost exclusively on bamboo. Technically, like many other animals, it is omnivorous. The birth rate of the giant panda is very low, both in the natural state and in captivity: the female only raises a young and, if she gives birth to twins, she cannot take care of both but takes care of only one.

Weaning is completed in nine months, but the young remain with the mother up to 18 months, during which time they learn how to get food and how to escape predators.