With their bold black and white coloring complemented by a playful, curious personality, pandas are beloved the world over. Despite their international fame, these gentle giants are only found in China, where they’re viewed as a national treasure.

Wild Pandas in the Bamboo Forests of China

Because the panda’s natural diet consists mainly of tender shoots of bamboo, these unique animals are restricted to a small range of ever-shrinking mountainous bamboo forests in the Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces of China. They prefer elevations of 5,000 to 10,000 feet, and the areas where they live are often shrouded in fog.

Pandas spend up to half of their day eating and foraging for food, and a single panda consumes about 28 pounds of bamboo per day. Pandas are omnivorous, so they supplement their bamboo-heavy diet with small birds and rodents.

Logging and farming have destroyed much of the panda’s original habitat, leaving them vulnerable to extinction, although their populations have recovered enough that they’re no longer considered endangered.

Protecting Pandas from Extinction

Over 50 nature reserves have been established in China to protect giant pandas. Reforestation efforts, including planting bamboo between isolated habitats to connect them, are ongoing. Some panda reserves, including the Giant Panda Breeding Center in Chengdu, raise money for conservation by letting visitors interact with resident pandas.

The Panda Lifestyle

Pandas are generally solitary, though some do form groups of 7 to 15 individuals. Pandas from different groups generally don’t mingle, and they mainly communicate through scent markings and vocal calls. These playful, relaxed animals are about the size of an American black bear with the males being slightly larger than the females.

Pandas lounge around a lot, and they don’t make much noise. When they do make sounds, it’s bleating, as heard in this video of a panda at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo:

Female pandas are only fertile for a short period of about two to three days per year, which makes breeding them in captivity difficult. Litters are small, typically only one or two panda cubs, and the babies stay with their mom for up to three years before setting off on their own. Because of this, pandas don’t usually have babies every year, lowering the species’ overall breeding rates even more.

The Panda as Cultural Ambassador

All pandas in the world belong to China, and the Chinese government keeps strict records of where their pandas go. While China once gave out pandas as gifts to other countries, they’ve had a policy since 1984 to only lend out pandas for short periods of time. China loans out pandas for $1,000,000 per year to zoos around the world, and any babies born to those loaned-out pandas become the property of China upon birth.

Pandas in Pop Culture

For modern kids, the most recognizable panda in pop culture is probably Po, the cartoon star of the Kung Fu Panda movie and animated series. The panda is also the official ambassador for the WWF conservation organization. In mainland China, pandas are often used as mascots for local brands and international events, such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The popularity of pandas around the world makes them a natural favorite of conservation organizations and zoo visitors. Governments and individuals have put considerable efforts into saving this vulnerable species, and those efforts have paid off with increased population growth, but the continued loss of habitat for these gentle giants remains a continued concern.