At its most primitive form a ferocious carnivore, these now docile vegetarians are still classified in the carnivorous order because their teeth and their stomach are made for chewing and digesting meat respectively. Around 8 million years ago, the giant panda became omnivorous and now almost exclusively eats about 60 of China's 500 different types of bamboo. Unfortunately, bamboo is low in any sort of nutrients for a large, warm-blooded mammal and the panda's digestive tract can only absorb about 20 percent of the meager nutrients (predominately sugar) that it does contain. As such, the panda spends pretty much all of its day sleeping so as not to expend any calories, and eating, so as to absorb as many calories as possible.
For all intents and purposes, pandas are evolutionarily challenged and probably shouldn't be living. In addition to their questionable dietary choices, pandas are also sexually reluctant and, when they do mate, require a specific match. If these bears do mate, a female panda in the wild will likely only give birth to one cub, and, scientifically speaking, that cub will be born prematurely.
At 1/1000 the weight of its mother (for comparative purposes, human babies are roughly 1/30 the weight of their mothers), the baby panda is born blind and remains that way for quite some time. Unfortunately for the baby panda, it is dependent on an animal who takes time to develop maternal instincts, who often swats the baby around because it cries, in the best case scenario only endangering it.
In captivity, pandas undergo artificial insemination and, like humans, are thusly more inclined to multiple births. Additionally, the scientists have a better ability to nurture and care for the newborns, taking them out of harms way and supplementing their diet with cornbread and specially designed baby formula.
It's estimated that only about 1000 pandas remain in the wild, and while I admire the vigor and passion of scientists who have devoted their lives to panda maintaining, a large part of me questions the usefulness of this endeavor.
Already dubbed "living fossils," these bears have outlived their shelf date by 3 million years, and that makes me wonder whether their seeming process of devolution is nature's way of saying, "It was fun, but you've gotta go now." Don't get me wrong: pandas are beautiful, diverting creatures who look like living teddy bears and I certainly don't wish for their demise. But I do wonder if all the efforts we're making for their conservation aren't better served elsewhere.
Anyway, the whole point of this blog, and I guess this was a really roundabout way of saying it, but all day at the panda research center I kept singing the only line I remember from Yoav Guttman's song (he was on the same trip to SouthAfrica with me in 2004 and brought along his guitar) about pandas. It goes like this: XingXing and BangBang, why won't they mate and create a little panda and save the panda fate?