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Byline: By SALLY WILLIAMS Western Mail

We would love to enjoy the idyllic life of a wild panda - it rests for most of the day, sitting under a beautiful rainforest canopy, chewing bamboo. Many people think pandas are very loveable and cute. Perhaps we love them so much because we cuddled our little panda bear teddies in bed at night as kids. So when we see one, we think of it as a real-life fluffy bear. Although he doesn't appear to do much and you could be forgiven for thinking he is, let's face it, a lazy bear, the giant panda has lived in bamboo forests for several million years and is actually a highly specialised animal, with unique adaptations. The giant panda has many traits that other lesser bears do not possess. It has a massive jaw and thumbs which are used to strip leaves from bamboo stalks, so he is smarter than your average bear. And while most bears growl or roar, giant pandas give more of a goat-sounding, feeble bleat. It has black fur on its tufty ears and sad-but-attractive black eye patches that make him look as if he should be holding up a sign in his paw saying, 'I'm adorable - love me!' But despite their cuddly appearance and strange, rather than terrifying, 'danger' calls, pandas are dangerous wild animals. Although scientists do not know why these unusual bears are black and white, some speculate that the bold colouring provides effective camouflage in their shade-dappled snowy and rocky surroundings. Giant pandas live in a few mountain range forests, shrouded in heavy clouds, in central China, in Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces.

They once lived in lowland areas, but farming, forest-clearing, and other developments now restrict giant pandas to the mountains.

They like to drink fresh water from rivers and streams that are fed by melting snowfall in high mountain peaks.

Until recently, scientists thought giant pandas spent most of their lives alone, with males and females meeting only during the breeding season. But recent studies show small groups of pandas share a large territory and sometimes meet outside the breeding season. Although females may give birth to two young, usually only one survives and the giant panda is listed as endangered in the World Conservation Union's (IUCN's) Red List of Threatened Animals. It is one of the most critically endangered species in the world and is used as the WWF logo. There are about 1,600 left in the wild and around 160 pandas live in zoos and breeding centres around the world, mostly in China. Chinese scientists have reported zoo pandas as old as 35 but their reproductive rates are low. In 1972, the Chinese government gave two giant pandas - a male and a female - to the US as a gesture of friendship for then President Richard Nixon, helping open US relations with China. The bears mated and Ling-Ling gave birth to three sets of twins during the 1980s. Unfortunately, all of the cubs died shortly after birth. Since the death of Ling-Ling there have been no pandas in the US. So major efforts are under way by both the Chinese and the US to develop successful artificial insemination of captive pandas to increase their numbers. Hopes for the pandas' long-term survival probably depend on the success of the projects. Except for a marsupial (such as the kangaroo or opossum), a giant panda baby is the smallest mammal newborn relative to its mother's size.

Sally Williams: The world's oldest known pandas:China's oldest giant panda in captivity, 35-year-old Changchang, died in 2002 of old age at a zoo in eastern China. Changchang had lived five years longer than the average life expectancy of a panda in captivity and in human terms was between 75- 85 when he died. The world's oldest panda before Changchang, a 37-year-old female called Dudi, died of epilepsy in 1999 at a zoo in Wuhan, central China. Giant pandas are found only in China and are one of the most endangered species in the world.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jan 16, 2006
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