Large, gentle-looking and seemingly approachable, the giant panda has become one of the most iconic emblems in the world. The forefront of wildlife preservation, it holds widespread appeal. Its black and white markings, large white head with black eye-patches and huggable appearance, make it instantly recognisable to all.
Giant pandas spend two-thirds of their day feeding and the other third resting. Resting being anywhere they happen to be at the time. They simple lie down on the spot. They are, however, skilled climbers and will soon shoot up into the trees if they sense predators. Climbing is aided greatly by the huge fur-lined paws with long retractile claws. Swimming can also be added to their list of abilities.
The males weigh in at anything up to one hundred and twenty kilos with the females slightly less heavy. They both have muscular jaws and huge molars which are broader than those of other bears, and perfect for tearing and crunching tough shoots. They also have an additional molar. These are their secret bamboo munching weapons. Fascinatingly, they possess a special adaptation for grasping the bamboo as well – an extra ‘thumb’ (a modified sesamoid bone derived from the wrist). A layer of mucus in their stomachs protects against shards of bamboo.
Pandas do not hibernate in winter as other bears do. As opposed to ‘digging in’ when the cold weather descends, they sensibly up sticks and march down the mountainside to more clement elevations.
Adults are solitary until the mating season begins (March to May). Females give birth only once a year, following a gestation period of approximately five months, and usually a single cub is born. Twins occur, but are rare. By now the father will be long gone. These extraordinary babies weigh about 1/900th of the mother’s weight. They are born pink, almost bald, about seven inches in length and with closed eyes. They also makes a lot of noise, crying and squealing. The cub’s eyes will remain shut for up to forty-five days. The cub will remain in the mother’s care until eighteen months to two years of age.
Although their diet is made up of various species of bamboo, and little else, giant pandas are still classified as carnivores.
Temperate montane forests with altitudes of up to four thousand metres. In the cold of winter they move to the lower and warmer elevations.
What they eat
Nothing but bamboo. The shoots, the leaves and the stems. – Subsequent to further information received, please note the following adjustment to this statement since the post was first published:
A wild giant panda’s diet is almost exclusively (99 percent) bamboo. They have been known to eat meat, but it is very rare. They are hopelessly slow when it comes to hunting, and any meat they may have consumed would probably have been carrion.
Restricted and degraded habitat. Forests have been cleared depriving the panda of its food base. Periodically, die-backs occur in bamboo. Forest clearance has prevented the panda from migrating from one source to the next when these die-backs befall the plant. Farmers grazing their livestock can also be a problem. When habitat is used as such, the bamboo cannot always regenerate.
There are now an estimated sixteen hundred mature giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) in the wild. Due to declining numbers and continual loss of habitat, the giant panda has been listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered.
A great deal has gone into the preservation of this species, including the founding of sixty or so reserves. There are over three hundred pandas in captivity around the globe. Captive breeding programmes, in most cases, have been successful, and plans are in place to release captive pandas into the wild in the hope of strengthening those populations. This has not been entirely successful. There are opposing views relating to the money spent on captive pandas; and some feel it would be better spent improving their environment instead. 
“In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught”