Diary of a Panda

Putting your worries about China’s cuddly icons to rest

By Ji Yuqiao, Chen Xi and Dong Feng, Published: 2020/7/8 16:50:40

Photo: IC
Editor's Note:

When the Calgary Zoo in Canada announced in mid-June it was sending its two giant pandas back to China due to a lack of high-quality bamboo for the pandas, it sparked public concern in China for the safety and health of these national treasures living in overseas zoos.

There has also been some concern about the impact of COVID-19 on pandas in general. To alleviate these fears and better inform the public, the Global Times reached out to several experts, including one very unique expert, to help clear up matters about the care these beautiful animals have been receiving.

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Special guest

Hi, I'm Mei Lan. As one of 208 pandas living in the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding in Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, I, along with my friends and relatives, underwent nucleic acid testing after the outbreak of COVID-19, and don’t worry, the results were all negative.

The lovely breeders here always take good care of us. Each day, I eat at least 15 kilograms of bamboo – my favorite food. I am picky about what I put in my mouth, so although I can eat other food like apples and carrots, bamboo is something I can't go without.

As fewer visitors have been able to play with me, I have been very bored and so have been eating more bamboo than usual. Sadly, this has led me to gain weight in my quarantine life, as have many of my friends.

I heard that two of my friends, Wang Wang and Fu Ni, who were sent to the Adelaide zoo in Australia, also don't need to worry about food despite these difficult times, because the zoo has its own bamboo plantation to grow food for them.

I believe all of my friends and relatives, including those who are living overseas, are looking forward to an end to their dreary time in isolation. One of my more naughty friends, Xing Er, actually escaped from his Panda House in the Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark to take a walk around the zoo. Sadly, his adventure was cut short after zoo staff sedated him and returned him to the house.

I wish him better luck next time!

Why are giant pandas unique?

1 The ancestor of the giant panda is Ailuaractos lufengensis, which lived about 3 million years ago. The golden age of pandas was about 500,000 to 700,000 years ago.

2 Giant pandas are endemic to China, and their main habitats are the mountains around the Sichuan Basin in Southwest China and the Qinling Mountains in Northwest China.

3 Pandas have six digits on their paws. In the process of evolution, pandas have grown a “thumb” in addition to their other five toes. The thumb is used to hold bamboo.

4 Pandas reach sexual maturity when they are 4 to 8 years old, and can be reproductive until around 20 years old. The mating season is March to May every year.

5 The mating time of pandas is short, ranging from 30 seconds to 5 minutes. Female pandas give birth to one or two cubs at a time but only one can usually survive in the wild. Female pandas often choose big tree holes as their delivery rooms in the wild.

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Photo: IC
Baby pandas

The newborn cub is only about 150 grams and has pink skin with only a little bit of fur. Blind at first, the cub will open its eyes in 50 to 60 days.

White-colored fur will appear after about three weeks.

Besides the iconic black and white pandas, there are also pandas that have white and brown colors as well as pure white, although they are much fewer in number.

After a month the cub will weigh two kilograms.

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The newborn cub can reach to five or six kilograms by three months. A panda cub can eat a bit of bamboo at 7 to 9 months old, but its main food is still its mother’s breast milk. A panda will usually remain with its mother until it is 18 months to 2 years old.

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An adult panda weighs more than 100 kilograms and can be about 1.5 meters long. A 100-kilogram adult panda can spend 14 hours eating from 12 to 38 kilograms of bamboo a day.

Panda experts weigh in on supply concerns

Wu Kongju is a giant panda expert at the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding

Q: What kind of bamboo do pandas prefer?

A: Pandas can eat more than 50 kinds of bamboo and prefer scattered bamboo instead of tufted bamboo. The research base provides each panda 50 kilograms of food including bamboo shoots and bamboo every day.

Q: Does the research base have cooperation agreements with overseas zoos to supply them with food?

A: No, overseas zoos have their own channels to get bamboo and we do not directly offer them bamboo.

Q: How many pandas are there at the base?

A: The research base is being expanded and after the construction project is finished, it will reach about 2.3 million square meters and be able to house 300 giant pandas without any issues.

Q: How long does it take for a panda to give birth?

A: Like humans, different pandas take different amounts of time to give a birth. Some of them need dozens of hours while others might have a baby after half an hour. The average time is three to six hours.

Q: Does giving birth have risks?

A: The process seldom has risks. However, as baby pandas are small and weak when born, we need to always be diligent and stay focused when taking care of them.

Diao Kunpeng is a panda expert and director of Beijing Qingye Ecology, an ecological research and protection institution

Q: Is there a possibility that pandas will bring the novel coronavirus back when they return from overseas zoos?

A: There is no evidence that pandas can be infected with the virus.

Q: Do pandas undergo the same nucleic acid tests as humans?

A: Pandas have different nose and throat structures than humans, so I think that while they are the same in principle, there might be some differences when it comes to the actual process.

Q: Does it cost a lot to operate a Panda House?

A: Yes, a Panda House has to keep certain standards. It must have different spaces for a variety of activities such as outdoor play, sleeping and health examinations. Pandas love wet and cool weather but some cities are hot in the summer, so a temperature and humidity control system is very important to a Panda House.

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Overseas zoos respond

Talking to the Global Times, four overseas zoos said they are doing all they can to ensure that the normal lives of pandas are not affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ÄhtäriZoo in Finland:

The pandas are doing great, so are the other animals.

Two giant pandas Jinbaobao and Huabao flew to Finland in January 2018 from China. They have been living at the ?ht?riZoo for 15 years.

One panda requires about 15-30 kilograms of bamboo each day, with the zoo transporting bamboo from the Netherlands by lorry at least once a week. Even if the whole world is suffering from the pandemic, the zoo has not experienced any delays in bamboo supplies for pandas.

Photo: IC
The Moscow Zoo in Russia:

The two giant pandas Dindin and Rui have been living in the zoo for over a year now. They arrived in Moscow on April 28, 2019.

The lockdown has not affected the food and water supply. As a matter of fact, zoo employees have arranged for bamboo supplies from a variety of sources. The zoo’s bamboo comes from China, the Netherlands and Sochi, Russia.

Breeders at the Moscow Zoo are in regular contact with Chinese panda experts, and although the quarantine has meant adjusting the meeting schedule, they have managed to continue regular communication. Additionally, the zoo's Chinese colleagues can watch the pandas online.

One panda requires about 15-30 kilograms of bamboo each day, with the zoo transporting bamboo from the Netherlands by lorry at least once a week. Even if the whole world is suffering from the pandemic, the zoo has not experienced any delays in bamboo supplies for pandas.

The Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark:

The two giant pandas, Mao Sun and Xing Er, have lived separately in each part of the big Yin-Yang-shaped Panda Enclosure since April 2019.

The food supply for pandas will never be a problem for the zoo as it runs a bamboo plantation an hour's drive from Copenhagen that supplies fresh bamboo three times a week. The zoo can also get additional supplies from farms in France and Holland.

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The Berlin Zoo in Germany:

For the animals in the Berlin Zoo, Tierpark and Aquarium, the crisis has not changed anything

In order to protect the animals, the zoo has already minimized direct human-animal contact. The keepers follow strict hygienic and behavior rules, wear gloves and respiratory masks while working with great apes, big cats and pandas. As part of a pandemic plan, the keepers have been divided into two separate groups in order to minimize in-house contact. The zoo is trying its best to ensure that the animals are not affected due to the crisis.