The Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is facing an uphill battle against extinction. The species is now reliant on conservation efforts and the wild population could be as low as just 1500 individuals, making it the rarest bear species in the world.
So why are pandas having such a tough time whilst other bear species such as the North American Black Bear seem to be able to adapt to changes in their environment? Well, the problem comes because pandas are just so fussy! Their diet is almost 100% bamboo; a grass species which is very low in nutrients and difficult to digest. Because of it's low nutritional value they have to eat pretty much constantly, and because it takes so long to digest they are not particularly active animals. What's more they won't just eat any old bamboo; they favour a particular species. Because they are pretty much the only animals that eat bamboo, in theory they would have no competition for their food and so their populations would thrive. Being a highly specialised animal is often the key to success because you don't have to fight for your food. But the case of pandas is a little more complicated; scientists believe that the bears were historically carnivorous but that their diet changed to bamboo over time because it requires less energy to forage than to hunt, and since pandas have no natural predators as adults they can afford to be out in the open grazing. What this means though is that pandas lack the necessary genetics to digest the grass easily and so rely on microbes in their stomach which is a much less effective process than other herbivores such as cows and deer use, chewing the cud several times and digesting it in their multiple stomachs.
The bamboo forests where pandas have previously reined in the lowlands of central China have been extensively deforested and turned into agricultural lands which are becoming the economic heart of the country, forcing the pandas to head for the hills. Up in the mountain ranges the pandas become isolated and it is harder for individuals to find a mate.
Pandas are also VERY fussy when it comes to mating; zoologists and conservationists have had many sleepless nights trying to figure out ways to entice pandas into breeding in captivity. From the female panda's point of view, she wants to choose the male with the best genes because bringing up baby pandas is a big task; they grow extremely slowly (a newborn panda is about the size of a stick of butter - 1/900th the size of it's mother!). Generally if a mother has twins, she will select the stronger of the two and neglect the weakest which will die. The baby will stay with the mother for some 18 months and in this time she will have to boost her bamboo-eating to provide enough milk for her cub.
But even if the female does find a male that takes her fancy, convincing him to mate is another story all together. Pandas seem to be quite bashful in the bedroom and birth rates in the wild and in captivity are very low. Scientists have even tried giving pandas viagra and sex education videos to put them in the mood, and results have been patchy. In fact we know little about their courting rituals, but recent research suggests that 'chirps' and other vocalisations play a big role in panda flirting.
There have been some panda success stories recently and China has spent a lot of money setting up 50 conservation centres around the country to help save the species. China can fund these efforts by renting out it's adult pandas to zoos around the world. In fact Japan is currently renting two adult pandas from China for $1 million and the proceeds are being put towards re-building panda sanctuaries which were flattened by the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Countries around the world are starting to realise the economic value of having pandas in captivity and Japan has proudly unveiled a pair of twin pandas to the public this week which were born earlier in August. The twins will no doubt become media celebrities in the country and will hopefully bring in the important dollars needed to keep the panda from it's plight.