The giant panda is the rarest member of the bear family and one of the world's most threatened animals. There are now about 1,600 giant pandas in the wild, confined to forest areas high in the mountains of south-western China.
Their low population levels are not helped by the panda’s fragmented habitat and infrequent breeding. As well as being a solitary animal, the female panda remains on heat for only two or three days each spring.
The giant panda has a digestive system similar to a carnivore's, but has adapted to being a specialised bamboo feeder - for example it has strong cheek teeth with broad, crushing surfaces, and dextrous forepaws needed to handle vegetation.
Because the panda's digestive system is not designed to process plant matter, they cannot easily break down the cellulose in bamboo. This, coupled with the low nutritional value of bamboo, means they must eat huge amounts. The eat for up to 14 hours a day, consuming up to 38kg of food.
Every 10-120 years, depending on the bamboo type, bamboo plants die back en masse, and it may take up to 20 years before enough seeds grow and mature to feed a panda population.
This means pandas have to move on to another area to feed, making it vital there is enough connected habitat.
Why giant pandas need help
The panda’s forest habitat has shrunk and become fragmented over many years due to agriculture, local communities’ use of forest products for food and fuel, and commercial logging. This has been compounded by infrastructure development for China's growing human population.
The panda shares its habitat with a variety of other species that are extremely valuable to hunters, who are looking for food or are supplying the booming medicinal trade in South-east Asia. Products such as meat, deer antlers and musk deer pods are sought by poachers who litter the mountainsides with wire snares, some of which accidentally trap pandas.
Even though poaching giant pandas carries a severe penalty in China, this rare and secretive animal is prized by collectors for its skin, and some targeted poaching of pandas still occurs.
All these threats pose a risk to the panda’s survival.
What we're doing - and how you can help
In 1980, we became the first international conservation organisation to work in China, and have invested significantly in panda conservation ever since.
We've worked with the Chinese government to increase the protected habitat for the giant panda and other wildlife that lives alongside them, and there are now 62 nature reserves - covering over 70% of the wild panda population and 57% of their range.
Staff who work in and around the nature reserves have also been trained and equipped to better protect the panda and its precious habitat. Our aim is to further expand and connect more forests where the panda can safely roam.
There has also been a lot of work with local communities to find ways for them to be less dependent on forest resources for their income, food, cooking and heating. Solutions include fuel-efficient stoves, alternative livelihoods such as bee-keeping, and improved farming methods.