Animals,  Fauna,  Nature,  Travelogues

The Adorable Giant Pandas

Ever since I got to know that I would be spending a few days in Macau this summer, I began reading all I could from the internet. And I got really excited at the prospect of finally seeing giant pandas for myself. The giant panda is a conservation-reliant vulnerable species. Giant pandas were on the verge of extinction, until China started concerted conservation efforts, trying to get the pandas to breed in captivity. China supports over 375 giant pandas in captivity at different sites. Macau is one of the centres where these conservation efforts are on.

To see these gentle giants, we travelled to Seac Pai Van Park. While the spacious green park houses several rare species, including the red panda, ring-tailed lemurs, pig-tailed macaques (or coconut monkeys), common squirrel monkeys and Sichuan golden snub-nosed monkeys, the main attractions which get the tourists in, are the giant pandas.

In 1869, French missionary Armand Pere David obtained a specimen of the giant panda from Sichuan. Since they looked like bears, he called it a “black and white bear” (Ursus melanoleucus A. David). Later research established that its characteristics resembled those of the lesser panda and the nomenclature was changed to Aliuropoda melanoleuca David. The word panda was borrowed from French, but there is no conclusive explanation of the origin of the word panda. The closest candidate is the Nepali word ponya, which possibly refers to the adapted wrist bone of the red panda, which is native to Nepal.

Around 1700 years ago during the times of the Western Jin dynasty, it was customary to hold up a banner with a giant panda if an army wanted to convey its intention for armistice. The adorable black-and-white giant panda has been the logo of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) since its foundation in 1961, making it an international symbol of wildlife conservation. It is one of China’s treasured symbols, and was chosen as one of the five Fuwa mascots of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

When you enter the park, you can first go to the Giant Panda Information Centre, where a very interesting exhibition tells you all about this creature, with a special emphasis on how pandas are bred in captivity. In the wild, pandas can live from 15-18 years. Existing records show that giant pandas have lived upto 37 years in captivity.

In captivity, female giant pandas attain sexual maturity at around 4 years of age, while this duration is around 6 years for males. Females experience oestrus only once a year between March and May, for around 2-3 days. Giant pandas have an acute sense of smell and animals of both sexes communicate through their scents. A balanced diet and adequate exercise are essential for the natural mating of the pandas, and zoo keepers ensure that pandas in captivity receive both. At peak oestrus, they produce a sound akin to the bleating of goats. In Macau, there have been efforts at artificial insemination of female pandas to increase their chances of pregnancy. Soon after they get pregnant, female pandas prefer to be solitary and raise their young by themselves. They spend over a year and a half looking after their offspring.

Adult giant pandas are stout creatures with plump bodies and short tails. Their bodies measure 120-180 cm long and their tails are 10-12 cm long. They weigh 80-120 kg and can reach a maximum weight of 180 kg. Their thick woolly coats keep them warm in winter, and they do not need to hibernate.

The gestation period of pandas is long and stretches anywhere from 83 days to 200 days. Pandas weigh around 120 grams at birth and look like rats! They hardly have any hair over their bodies. However they grow rapidly. Within a month they gain weight and turn around 6 kgs. Within six months they weigh 14 kg. A one year old panda weighs almost 40 kg. Phew! The park maintains detailed growth charts of the pandas and it reminded me of the growth charts that we maintain in pediatrics.

We saw the entire baby book of the twin pandas Jian-Jian and Kang-Kang who were born on 26 June 2016. The pandas also have pet names. Jian-Jian is called Mano, while Kang-Kang is called Irmao. Kang-Kang was born underweight and weighed only 53.8 grams at birth. The exhibits also show the incubators in which they were raised.

The Giant Panda pavilion is shaped like a giant fan. The pavilion is maintained at an ambient cold temperature and you might need a jacket if you want to stay there longer. Toughened glass separates the pandas from the visitors. The pandas are maintained in enclosures which resemble their natural habitat.

There are two enclosures where we saw the pair of frisky twin pandas and a very sleepy adult. Sleeping on trees is a skill they learn as early as when they are 6 months old and it helps them escape from enemies. The adult panda we saw in the enclosure was all sprawled out on the branch of a tree, and would turn sides or stretch an arm just like a sleepy human being would.

While giant pandas appear to be sleepy and give the impression of being sleepy and gluttonous, they do have some abilities up their sleeves which they use when required. They can run faster than humans in dense bamboo forests. Swimming also comes naturally to them when they forage in the wild.

Apart from their five toes on their forefoot, one of their unique features is the pseudo-thumb. Unlike other bears, one of their wrist bones (a modified sesamoid bone) is enlarged and elongated, enabling its use as a thumb. This helps pandas grasp bamboo stalks.

While pandas have very poor eye-sight, their olfactory capacity makes up for this problem. They smell bamboo shoots right away. Giant pandas love to eat bamboos, which is most of their diet, but they are not vegetarian. Giant pandas in the wild will occasionally eat other grass, wild tubers, or even meat in the form of birds, rodents, or carrion. In the zoos, pandas are also fed other fruits and high-fibre biscuits to maintain their balanced diets.

The digestibility of bamboo is very low. If an adult panda eats around 25 kg of bamboo each day, it excretes around 24.8 kg. Ingestion of such a large quantities is possible because of the rapid passage of large amounts of indigestible plant material through the short, straight alimentary tract. Given this voluminous diet, the giant panda defecates up to 40 times a day. Their excrement is in the form of spindles which contain undigested bamboo leaves and stalks. The limited energy input imposed on it by its diet has affected the panda’s behavior. The giant panda tends to limit its social interactions to limit its energy expenditure.

We had great fun watching Jian-Jian and Kang-Kang wrestling with each other. They were like a pair of kids playing with each other. Enjoy the antics of the frolicking twins in this video that Subodh captured.

Video credit: Subodh S Gupta

Directions to get there:

To see the giant pandas, one needs to get to Seac Pai Van Park in Coloane (Bus routes nearby: 15, 21A, 25, 26, 26A, 50, N3). Entry to the rest of the park is free, but entry to the Giant Panda Pavilion is priced at 10 MOP (approximately Rs 85) per person. This ticket is valid for an hour. The park is closed on Mondays. Try and get there before their feeding time which is 1-2 pm. After their meal they are known to sleep for long hours and it isn’t as much fun to see a sleepy panda.

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