Some countries have adopted an animal as a kind of national mascot. The bald eagle is often thought of as representing the United States, for example. New Zealanders proudly display their kiwi, a native flightless bird. Australians cannot seem to make up their minds whether the koala or the kangaroo should represent them. China also has two animals which often stand out in everyone's mind: the dragon and the giant panda. As the dragon is a mythological animal, that leaves the giant panda as the only real animal representative of China.
Although dragons have been associated with China for thousands of years, the panda's inclusion into the Chinese psyche is far more recent. The giant panda was not even discovered until 1869; it was already a rare animal at that time, living in the high bamboo forests of Sichuan province and neighboring parts of Tibet. Its more plentiful cousin, the lesser panda, is also referred to as the cat bear or bear cat; however, zoologically speaking, it is neither. The lesser panda is a member of the raccoon family, whereas the giant panda's classification is still a dilemma: some authorities consider it a member of the bear family while others maintain that it belongs to the raccoon family, too.
The giant panda is well named. Reaching a length of 1.5 meters and 160 kilograms, this gentle omnivore is among the largest land animals of China. Subsisting on a diet of bamboo and other plants, and even small animals, it can consume as much as 30 kilograms of food a day. Now that's a giant appetite! Its distinctive markings--broad, white bands of fur alternating with black, and small black circles around the eyes--have endeared the giant panda to animal lovers everywhere.
People may want to hug this huge "teddy bear," but giant pandas prefer to live a solitary life. This may account for their scarcity; these pandas are on all official lists of endangered animals. Estimates of the wild panda population are difficult due to the rugged terrain they live in, but most experts agree that fewer than 1000 remain free. As they give birth to only one or two cubs when mating is successful, the giant panda's survival in the wild is anything but a foregone conclusion. The Chinese government has set aside 11 nature preserves where pandas are known to exist, hoping to protect them from the rapid encroachment of man. Though poaching is still a problem, strict laws have reduced this senseless carnage.
Pandas in captivity number less than 100, the largest share, of course, in China. Those in Western zoos are treated as royalty and are the object of intense scientific interest and care. Recently, veterinarians have given male giant pandas Viagra, hoping to increase the animals' reproductive efficiency. Results are thus far inconclusive. Though births have been reported, they are few and far between. It seems the panda's chance of survival is razor-thin.
Its extinction would be a sad day for all of mankind. These playful and gentle creatures never fail to amuse adults and children alike lucky enough to observe them in zoos. Every plant and animal that leaves the world due to human intervention and encroachment of habitat diminishes the world we live in. The richness of the Earth's original biodiversity is being attacked. Will future generations of humanity be left with only a few species of food plants, and zoos exhibiting cockroaches and rats?
Hopefully, men will learn the excesses of their ways and strive to protect the remaining natural habitats as an investment not only in the flora and fauna remaining but in the quality of life, present and future, of all those on this planet. "Extinction is forever" and "There is only one world" need no longer be heard one becomes conscious of preserving the beauty of the natural world around us.