By Carmela Maraan Fernando
They’re black, white, and love eating greens. They also have a reputation for being docile and harmless creatures because they’re oh-so-adorable. But are they?
Dubbed by the Chinese as “xiongmao,” which means “bear that resembles a cat,” pandas are regarded as China’s national treasures. Appropriately, every year on March 16. conservationists and bear lovers all over the world celebrate their existence on National Panda Day.
But several myths about these beloved creatures also exist. Some are simply amusing, while there’s one that can be potentially dangerous.
In honor of these magnificent bears, we’re starting some truths about them that deserve to be known.
- Pandas are carnivorous herbivores
Pandas are bears. Their bodies are naturally built to consume and digest meat. But because they needed to move from one habitat to another, they evolved to eat bamboo instead. This also protects them from having to compete – and lose against – faster meat-eating predators in the area.
Since their digestive systems have yet to acclimate to a plant-based diet, pandas have to spend most of the day foraging, chewing, and passing the tough fibrous grass – up to 44 pounds daily! In fact, they spend about 55% of their lifespan eating.
2. Pandas enjoy mating
It’s a misconception that pandas aren’t interested in sex. This was perpetuated by studying panda activity in zoos, where they’re isolated from their comfort zone. Without several companions, they weren’t socialized enough to know how to perform their courtship and mating process properly.
However, behind their cherubic faces are naturally active breeders. Pandas in the wild have been observed to engage in frequent sexual activity due to their social nature. Not only that, but group sex is common amongst them. This is why female pandas can give birth once every year. This is also why they’ve been roaming the earth for 20 million years and counting, as solid proof of their ability to keep their species alive.
3. Pandas are not lazy
Don’t be fooled by their laid-back demeanor and ambling gait; pandas are anything but the lazy animals that popular media portrays them to be.
What they lack in speed, they more than make up for in endurance. For one, they don’t hibernate or wait for prey to approach. They eat for almost 20 hours a day everyday. They’re also able to trek steadily up and down steep hillsides for several miles in search of food. And, because of their plant-rich diet, their bodies are unable to store enough fat to slow them down and keep them warm and nourished, so they need to keep foraging until it’s time to recharge.
4. Pandas attack when annoyed
To reiterate, pandas are bears. While they don’t actively hunt prey like their brown, black, and polar counterparts, they are still built for action. With sharp claws, strong limbs, large fangs, and powerful jaws that can make mulch out of tough bamboo stems, these usually gentle cuties can still deliver serious damage when they feel threatened or frightened.
Male pandas have been known to attack one another when establishing territorial dominance. There are also accounts of zookeepers and a drunken zoo visitor being bitten on different occasions. All people survived the attacks, with huge scars and an important lesson to learn: Never cross a panda.
5. Pandas were once considered monsters
Of course, they’re not monsters; they’re just your beautiful bears who want to live as best as they can. But ancient Chinese folk used to fear them as metal-eating “tapirs” who could easily chew through metal gates (maybe because of how they could chew on bamboo). They also believed that panda fur held magical powers against ghosts and could regulate a woman’s menstrual cycle, a belief that sadly led to the animals being hunted for their pelts.
Fortunately, that belief has now died off to make way for a better reputation. In 1961, Chi Chi, an orphaned panda who was also the star of the London Zoo, was adopted as the logo for World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to symbolize all endangered animals.
Which brings us back to National World Panda Day: If the iconic bear represents all endangered animal species, is it also endangered?
Long story short, not anymore. And this alone is worth celebrating every March 16.
This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s March 2020 issue.