The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca "black-and-white cat-foot") is a mammal classified in the bear family, Ursidae, native to central and southern China.
The panda's main food is bamboo, but they may eat other foods such as honey, eggs, fish, and yams. Easily recognizable through its large, distinctive black patches around the eyes, ears and on its rotund body, the giant panda is an endangered animal: an estimated 1,600 pandas live in the wild and some 188 were reported to live in captivity at the end of 2005, twenty of which are found outside of China. However, reports show that the panda numbers in the wild are on the rise.
The giant panda has a very distinctive black-and-white coat, and adults measure around 1.5m long and around 75cm tall at the shoulder. Males can weigh up to 115 kg (253 pounds). Females are generally smaller than males, and can occasionally weigh up to 100 kg (220 pounds). Giant pandas live in mountainous regions, such as Sichuan, Gansu, Shaanxi, and Tibet. While the Chinese dragon has been historically a national emblem for China, since the latter half of the 20th century, the panda has also become an informal national emblem for China, and its image is found on many Chinese gold coins.
The giant panda has an unusual paw, with a "thumb" and five fingers; the "thumb" is actually a modified sesamoid bone, which helps the panda to hold the bamboo while eating. Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay about this, then used the title The Panda's Thumb for a book of essays concerned with evolution and intelligent design. The giant panda has a short tail, approximately 15 cm long.
Giant pandas can usually live to be 20-30 years old while living in captivity.
Unlike many other animals in ancient China, pandas were rarely thought to have medical uses. The only considered medical use was probably of panda urine, to melt needles accidentally swallowed in the throat. In the past, pandas were thought to be rare and noble creatures; the mother of Emperor Wen of Han was buried with a panda skull in her tomb. Emperor Taizong of Tang was said to have given Japan two pandas and a sheet of panda skin as a sign of goodwill. Panda skin was considered a sign of courage afterwards thus, pandas became a target for poachers.
The giant panda was first made known to the West in 1869 by the French missionary Armand David, who received a skin from a hunter on 11 March 1869. The first westerner known to have seen a living giant panda is the German zoologist Hugo Weigold, who purchased a cub in 1916. Kermit and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., became the first foreigners to shoot a panda, on an expedition funded by the Field Museum of Natural History in the 1920s. In 1936, Ruth Harkness became the first Westerner to bring back a live giant panda, a cub named Su-Lin who went to live at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. These activities were halted in 1937 because of wars; and for the next half of the century, the West knew little of pandas.
Two zoos in Europe show giant pandas:
•Zoologischer Garten Berlin, Berlin, Germany - home of Bao Bao, age 27, the oldest panda living in captivity; he has been in Berlin for 25 years and has never reproduced.
•Tiergarten Schönbrunn, Vienna, Austria - home to two pandas (a male and a female) born in Wolong, China in 2000.
London, Madrid, and Paris no longer have pandas, although Madrid is exploring the possibility of obtaining pandas in the future.
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