The Animal with the Soulful Look
IT LOOKS like a bear, can stand erect like a bear, but it isn’t a bear. Its face is white, but its eyes are set in two black patches slanted at a peculiar angle that gives it a soulful look. This, plus a shiny black nose, reminds one of a sad clown. Two round black ears rise from the surrounding white fur to complete a fascinating face—the face of the giant panda.
It is a private animal, living a solitary life in the high mountains of southwest China and eastern Tibet. In fact, only during the mating period do a male and a female live together. When it is time for a baby to be born, the female finds a hollow tree in which to bear and nurse her cub.
In the winter the giant panda moves down the mountainsides, below 8,500 feeta where food is more plentiful. But in summer it climbs above 9,000 feet, where it is cool, and sweet Chinacane bamboo is abundant. Its appetite is enormous, a single panda devouring 22 to 44 poundsb a day to sustain its 200- to 300-pound body. After eating, it has an after-dinner drink of water—not from a stream, but from a hole it digs right beside the stream. It may make and drink from several of these private water holes before its thirst is quenched.
You may have to depend on a zoo to see the soulful-looking pandas, but Tibetan peasants who live in the Baishui River Nature Preserve have them as neighbors. The Tibetans call them the “white bears.” Sometimes they wander into the cornfields for a snack, but the peasants merely shout to drive them away. Once in a while a panda slips into a peasant’s cottage to filch some food, but the peasant is likely to smile and say, “Welcome to my home for dinner, white bear.” Peasants have been known to care for lost cubs, feeding them the tenderest shoots of bamboo until they are able to fend for themselves.
Since the Chinacane bamboo is the regular diet of giant pandas, a disaster can occur when, after a cycle of several decades, the bamboos suddenly die off en masse. When this happened in the Baishui area in 1975, many pandas died from hunger. When Tibetans reported the matter, rescue teams were sent out to search for starving pandas. The teams brought the pandas to a collecting post, where they were fed maize or rice mixed with sweet potatoes. Team members even scaled mountains to find any remaining bamboo shoots. Old and weak pandas were given a broth of Chinese medicinal herbs to aid in their recovery. Sick pandas were nursed day and night. The rescue work took two months, but all the pandas brought in recovered.
Recently giant pandas have appeared in places where they have not been seen for years. But their numbers in the wild are just under 1,000, and there is growing concern for their survival. Hopefully, however, the “white bears” will increase. It would be sad indeed if these animals with the soulful look were to disappear from the earth.
a One foot = .3 m.
b One pound = .45 kg.