It’s estimated that the total number of giant pandas in the wild is only over 1600. All the wild giant pandas live in China now. However, in ancient times, giant pandas were found in wide regions of China, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar.
Where do pandas live in China?
Currently, the 1,600 giant pandas live in over 20,000 square kilometers (8,000 mi2) of habitat. These habitats are in mountainous forests of southwestern China. The Yangtze Basin region holds the primary habitat. There are two subspecies of giant pandas, the black-and-white nominate population and the brown-and-white “Qinling” population. The nominate subspecies mainly live in Sichuan province, and brown panda inhabits a smaller territory in the Qinling Mountains in southern Shaanxi province. Their habitats are in high- and mid-altitude bamboo forests.
Giant pandas only became known to the rest of the world outside China in the 20th Century.
What kinds of habitats do pandas live in?
Altitude: Between 5,000 and 10,000 feet elevation (1,524 – 3,048 m), where the cool and wet bamboo forests prosper, in remote mountains of southwest China.
Climate: Giant pandas like deep mountains of mixed deciduous and evergreen forests, with dense clusters of bamboo. Bamboo is the main food for giant pandas. In these ranges, the climate is temperate, in distinctive but moderate four seasons, with warm winters and cool summers. Also, there are abundant rainfall, mist, humidity, and heavy clouds. Due to the bamboo diet of low nutrition, pandas do not hibernate in the winter. They will climb to higher mountains in the summer and slope lower to live through a warmer winter.
Bamboo: Bamboo is the giant panda’s major diet, although they are carnivores. The habitats they live in are the perfect areas for juicy bamboos to grow. But as the pandas only absorb 20%-30% of the bamboo they eat, they have to keep feeding themselves with sufficient bamboo. The can eat bamboo for 10-14 hours a day, up to 23-40 kilo (50-90 pounds). There are in total about 164 different types of bamboo in China, but pandas live on only about 25 different kinds available in their habitats. Pandas need at least two species of bamboo to stay alive. When bamboo dies back after flowering, pandas have to move elsewhere for food. Especially in winters, it’s difficult for pandas to get abundant bamboo easily.
Solitary: Giant pandas like to live alone. A panda needs between 2.5 to 4 square miles (10 million m2) of land to itself for living. They use a special scent to mark the territory. Only in mating season during the spring, a female and a male panda will be together for a few days to reproduce baby pandas. After that, they go back to a solitary life and avoid meeting one another through the scent.
Fragmentation and loss of panda’s habitats
In history, the habitat for giant pandas shrank from China and neighboring countries to China only. The biggest reason is human activities, such as logging, farming, and panda killing. From 1970-1980, about half of the panda’s habitat in China’s Sichuan areas was further destroyed by human activities. Since then, the Chinese government has started to take strong measures to protect giant pandas and their habitats, by implementing strict laws and establishing reserves.
Major habitats of giant pandas now.
As we mentioned, there are two subspecies of giant pandas living. Studies show the Qinling population separated about 300,000 years ago; and that the non-Qinlin population further developed about 2,800 years ago into two groups: the Minshan and the Qionglai–Daxiangling–Xiaoxiangling–Liangshan group.
This reveals the major habitats for giant panda nowadays, Minshan Mountains and Qinling Mountains. About 45% of wild giant pandas live in the Minshan mountains, and another 20% live in the Qinling mountains, the remaining 35% live in scattered areas in Qionglai, Liangshan, Daxiangling, and Xiaoxiangling Mountains.
Minshan mountains run through Sichuan and Gansu provinces.
The Minshan Mountains form a natural barrier between densely populated provinces to the east and the wild regions of the highest and largest Tibetan plateau to the west. The climate and surroundings allow giant pandas a good living. This is the home to the highest density of giant pandas.
Qinling Mountains are in Shaanxi province, the home for “Qinling” panda subspecies.
The Qinling Mountains, as one of the most important watersheds in China, provide protection from the cold northern weather, allowing warm temperatures and rains. The warm rains on the southern slopes also allow a variety of plants and animals.
Pandas reserves established to protect panda habitat
More than 60 natural panda reserves have been established in China. These reserves cover over 10,000 square kilometers (4,000 square miles). Giant pandas and many other rare and precious plants and animals are well protected in these natural reserves. Links and corridors are kept open between the reserves to maintain them connected. But only around 70% of wild pandas live in the reserves, so more efforts are being taken to protect giant panda bears better.
To counter the existing challenges of the fragmentation of panda habitat, the bamboo forest has been planted to connect isolated zones of panda habitat. Pandas can migrate for food, mate, and in winters then. Reforestation has also been done to extend the areas of existing habitat for a more spacious living surrounding for pandas.
In 1987, the punishment for illegal panda killing was strengthened from two years to a life sentence or death. Today the punishment is a bit different, which is 10-20 years in prison.
Panda bases in China
Several panda bases are established to better protect pandas and help breed in captivity. Pandas bases not only protect pandas but also support scientists to observe and research giant pandas. The four major panda bases are all in Sichuan province: Wolong panda bases, Dujiangyan panda base, Bifengxia panda base, and Chengdu panda base.