Panda poop

A pile of fresh panda poop in a bamboo thicket… I am excited! Image by Brad Josephs

As the winter passes on my thoughts turn away from the polar bears and grizzlies of 2010 and to the coming adventures of 2011. The first on the calendar for me will be guiding the Natural Habitat Wild and Ancient China trips this May and June. Am I excited? Does a panda poop in the bamboo thickets of Sichuan, China? They sure do.

I have recently gone through some footage and images I gathered while guiding this trip last year. These highlights show the incredible opportunities for viewing and even interacting with pandas at the Giant Panda Base in Chengdu, the glorious capital of Sichuan, and at the Bifengxia Panda Reserve located deep in the Mountains to the Southwest. Without a doubt, this trip offers the ultimate exposure to the giant panda.

The number of pandas, proximity, photo opportunities, and chance to see them living in their natural habitat is truly incredible, not to mention the experience of touching and playing with these magnificent creatures. This was my first time in my life making direct contact with a living bear, and it nearly brought me to tears. At the end of video I have inserted some slides of other locations we visit, such as the Terracotta Warriors near Xian, the Great Wall near Beijing, and the incredibly beautiful lakes and waterfalls of Jiuzhaigou National Park on the rim of the Tibetan Plateau.  Have a look at just a hint of this awesome trip.

My interest in China and the Giant Pandas continued to grow, so my wife and I decided to travel there with my sister Nora Drew and good friend Ian for almost 2 months last winter. We spent most of our time with Phillip He, who co-guided the Natural Habitat trip with me and has since become my very close friend.

Many people ask if any of the panda viewing on the Natural Habitat trip includes looking for wild pandas, and although it is remotely possible to catch a glimpse of a wild panda in some of the areas we visit, the answer is generally no. The panda is one of the most difficult animals on earth to see in the wild because of their low densities, shy nature, and most of all, the fantastically rugged, inhospitable and inaccessible habitats they prefer.

I have made it a lifelong goal to attempt to view as many of the world’s wild animals as possible, so with Phillip’s help we gave the giant panda a go. We packed our camping gear and headed north from Chengdu by public bus to reach a remote forest reserve that only been visited by westerners once before us. Despite 8 days of camping in subfreezing temperatures, and following two local trackers through steep, dense, snow covered and dangerous country we failed to see a wild panda. However, just being in wild panda country and finding fresh sign was more than enough for me. We suffered quite a bit due to the rugged terrain and temperature but aquired a lot of knowledge first hand about one of the most endangered ecosystems on the planet. If you are curious to see a hint of what it was like to embark on such an expedition, check out this video I put together from my footage.

More on the Incredible Giant Panda
Many volumes of books have been written on this subject (I only have 45 more to read before the May 8th departure!), so I will just touch on a few items that interest me the most.

Why do pandas have such unique coloration? Many species use mixed hair colors to offset their shapes in their natural surroundings. A black and white panda in a dark thicket, covered with snow is almost invisible. All bears communicate with body language. A head on stare with direct eye contact is bear speak for intimidation. Like other bears, their eyes are very small, so the black patches on the eyes and ears could exaggerate eye shapes, making them appear more threatening to other species. The panda is a big, tough animal, but it is thought that pandas evolved with tigers, wolves, and other species of larger, more dangerous bears which preyed on them, so it likely paid off to look as formidable as possible.

yin yang

The symbol of yin and yang shows teo opposing forces, black and white, balanced in perfect harmony.

Ironically, the black and white coloration which may have helped them in violent confrontations, is viewed in Chinese culture to represent peace. The Giant Panda is thought to be a symbol of yin and yang, which is the perfect balance of black and white and a representation of the two opposing forces of nature, which symbolizes harmony. China has presented pandas for zoos to a number of nations as a symbol of peace and harmony.

So is the panda really a bear?  I like to say “just barely”. To understand what I mean, take a look at the evolutionary tree:

Bear evolutionary tree

Pandas split off from the rest of the bears millions of years ago and have changed very little since since. For some reason they evolved themselves into a tight corner. Unlike the strategy of other bears to generalize on numerous types of high quality foods such as salmon, carrion, fruits and insects, the panda became ultra specialized in eating bamboo, which is a miserably low quality food for an animal with a carnivorous stomach. The panda is not a ruminant and therefore cannot convert most of the bamboo’s tissues into useable calories. The only way to survive on bamboo if you have a panda’s stomach is to eat a massive amount of it (around 40 lbs/day!!!). To achieve this they must spend 14 hours/day eating, have evolved a special thumb-like structure from their wrist bone to help them grip bamboo canes, and have very strong jaws.

Panda thumb bones

Pandas have a “psuedothumb” which is an extension of the radial sesamoid bone of the wrist that functions as a 6th digit to assist them in grasping bamboo canes. Image by Brad Josephs

Although these evolutionary adaptations are utterly amazing, this dependence on bamboo plays a large part in their vulnerability as a species. Bamboo flowers, produces seeds, and dies at the same time in a regional area. Pandas must be able to migrate to areas of different bamboo species and ages in order to survive these die offs. Massive habitat destruction and fragmentation in nearly all of the panda’s range prevents these movements and can result in starvation. The only chance for pandas to survive as a species in the wild is to link these fragmented pockets of habitat with corridors.

The Iconic Image of Wildlife Conservation
It is no coincidence that the “Flagship Species” of the World Wildlife Fund is the Giant Panda. It all started in 1979, when WWF was the first international conservation organization to be invited by the Chinese government to assist them in the conservation of the Giant Panda. A year later, the legendary American wildlife biologist Dr. George Schaller, working under WWF in collaboration with Chinese scientists, performed the first field research program which began to unravel the mysteries of wild panda biology.

World Wildlife Fund logoSince then, WWF has made great strides to help the Chinese Government protect wild panda habitat, train local research and conservation staff, and perform vital research on this extremely vulnerable species.

To learn more about WWF’s role in Giant Panda Conservation, read about pandas here.