Giant pandas have become the face of the global nature conservation movement, and are part of the logo of the WWF. The appealing appearance of these unique bears has helped conservation efforts all over the world, and has, in the process, made giant pandas one of the most recognizable animal species in the world.
Everything about this mystifying animal, right from its appearance to the threat it currently faces, is linked to its habitat. Let's see how the giant panda's environment affects this endangered species.
However, increased farming and other human activities in the lowlands have forced the pandas to be concentrated in the mountainous region. They inhabit the cloudy, rain-swept heights of these mountains, where their favorite food, bamboo, grows in abundance.
Giant pandas are dependent on bamboo, despite being anatomically built as carnivores. No other animal in the world depends on a single source of food more than giant pandas do on bamboos, around 99% of diet consists of bamboos.
However, is not very nutritious, forcing giant pandas to chomp down enormous amounts of the -- largely useless -- food to compensate for the lack of nutrients. The plant matter is digested not because of the natural arrangement of their digestive tracts, but a large concentration of suitable gut flora.
Their habitat, filled with vast tracts of bamboo forest, is thus virtually the only region that can support them. But even in this favorable region, their highly unusual diet creates problems. Their cellulose-rich herbivorous diet makes them lethargic, which forces them to stay off steep inclines and severely limits expenditure of precious energy.
Due to their inability to inhabit higher reaches of the mountains, they are found in isolated populations through their range. Scientists fear that this has led to inbreeding among the individual populations, further hampering the future of the species.
Their tough diet has also given them unusually large and strong jaws, resulting in the peculiar rounded face.
Panda Conservation Paradox
Conservation of giant pandas is not universally backed, and has some notable detractors, prominent among which is British naturalist Chris Packham.
A quite valid argument put forth by Packham is that breeding giant pandas in captivity is pointless, because unlike other endangered species, the natural habitat of pandas is being irreversibly eradicated.
In fact, breeding programs for pandas, who are very expensive to keep and notoriously slow to mate, are taking away valuable resources from other animals that could really benefit from the programs. Anti-panda conservationists like Packham argue that giant pandas should simply beallowed to die out.
Although it sounds inhumane, it appears to be a rather inevitable solution. The uniquely interdependent organism-habitat-diet triad of giant pandas means that as the Chinese bamboo forests are cleared, the species must naturally suffer.
Since they are historically not found anywhere else in the world, introducing them to new regions would wreak havoc upon both the new region as well as the pandas themselves. As pandas can't survive without bamboo, it would have to be introduced/increased in the region, altering the natural balance of flora and fauna.
Also, pandas would be highly at risk from the predators and pathogens of their new region. Thus, if introduced to any other geographical region or ecological biome, they would not occupy any niche in the food web, and would suffer along with the local ecology.
The giant panda has become the face of global conservation efforts, and much is being done to protect this species from extinction. This is only sustainable if their habitat is conserved, and not by breeding them in captivity. The unique relationship that the giant panda has with its habitat is now threatening to consign the species to the ranks of the dodo.