Why Giant Pandas are Endangered

By Kim Smiley

Panda breeding programs continue to struggle, a fact unfortunately highlighted by the recent death of a week old panda cub at the National Zoo on September 23, 2012.  Breeding programs are an important part of the panda conservation effort since the adored animals are endangered with only an estimated 1,600 remaining in the wild and about 300 in captivity.

The factors that contributed to pandas becoming endangered can be analyzed by building a Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis.  A Cause Map is an intuitive way to show the cause-and-effect relationships between the different causes that contribute to an issue. In this example, a good starting point is to ask why pandas are endangered.  This happened because there aren’t enough viable habitats, pandas have a low birth rate and panda cubs have a high mortality rate.

The panda habitat has significantly decreased because the bamboo forests are being cleared as the region becomes more industrialized.  Pandas also need a large habitat.   They are large animals who consume mostly bamboo so a lot of it is needed to sustain them.  The average panda can consume 20 to 30 pounds of bamboo shoots each day. They are also solitary, territorial creatures and do not like to live close to each other.

Pandas also have a notoriously low birth rate, in the wild and especially in captivity.  Female pandas are only fertile once a year for a very short window, about 36 hours.  In the wild, pandas have to find a mate (that they don’t typically live near) while fertile to produce a cub for the year.  Pandas in captivity struggle with conception even when they share an enclosure with a potential mate because they seem to lose interest in “natural breeding”.  The recent cub born at the National Zoo was the product of artificial insemination.  If a panda does manage to conceive, she will still only raise a single cub per year.  Most of the time only a single baby is born, but even if twins occur only one usually survives.

Panda cubs that are born also face a high mortality rate.  Twenty-five percent of panda cubs born in the US don’t survive their first year and the numbers are lower in the Chinese breeding centers.  This occurs because panda cubs are born very small, about the size of a stick of butter, and immature.  The newborns are helpless, pink and blind and require a lot of care taking to survive.  There is also the heart breaking chance that a mother panda can inadvertently injure her cub because she is much larger than her newborn and needs to handle it frequently to nurse it and care for it.

At this point, no captive panda has successfully been reintroduced into the wild and it’s unlikely that they will be in the foreseeable future.  Only time will tell if conservation efforts are successful for the giant pandas.

To view a high level Cause Map of this issue, click “Download PDF” above.