LA VÉRITÉ SUR LES PANDAS GÉANTS

THE TRUTH ABOUT GIANT PANDA

Wild pandas Is not like their captive counterparts. They have a dangerously powerful bite and intense sexual desire

There is a lot of confusion about giant pandas, perhaps more than any other living species. This is due to the absolutely huge symbolic, political and economic baggage that accumulates on the captive pandas. This burden goes far beyond what we actually know about this species in the wild.

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This distinction between captive pandas and wild pandas is important. Because the truth about pandas depends on the type of panda you're talking about.

If it is the captive panda that interests you, then the stereotype of the peluchous panda, sneezing, clowning, and unable to reproduce is present.

But if it's the truth about the wild pandas you're looking for, then you have to close your eyes, take a big breath and purge the spirit of everything you think about giant pandas. Most of this information is false.

What is undeniably true is that pandas are striking animals. In 1966, zoologist Desmond Morris advanced 20 factors to explain the human obsession with pandas. About half of them were related to appearance: flat face, large eyes, soft appearance, rounded contour, contrasting colours, etc.

But appearances can be misleading and it would be a mistake to approach too close to a wild panda.

Even in captivity, where pandas are accustomed to being chunked by humans, they can be dangerous. In 2006, a 28-year-old man, Zhang's name, entered the pandas enclosure at the Beijing Zoo and tried to caress the animal. He showed up in front of his companion, but all he had to show for his exploits is to become unrecognizable. There are photos available, but they are very, very ugly.

Such injuries are possible thanks to the incredibly coarse skull of the giant panda and its sagittal crest of the mohican type. It is the anchor of a massive masticatory muscle that can provide one of the largest bites of any carnivore. The panda needs this impressive bite to spawn a path in the resistant sheath of a bamboo stem.

The panda also has an enlarged radial sesamoid bone, or "fake thumb", which allows it to grasp when it mordilla, a complex series of intestinal microbes that facilitate its digestion and a disposition to spend more than half of its life to pick up, prepare and eat bamboo.

With such adaptations, the giant panda made a remarkable "switcheroo". It is a carnivore that has found a way to eat bamboo, a reasonably reliable food source from one season to the next. Better still, unlike most carnivores, bamboo is not used to escape.

But it is on the subject of sex that the reputation of the captive pandas is the most disagreeing with reality in nature.

Giant pandas have a particular reproductive cycle, with adult females only becoming fertile once a year for less than two days.

We humans have been studying giant pandas in nature only since 1980 and we still have a lot to learn. But according to what we can say, the pandas have very, very different sexual behavior in nature.

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It was legendary zoologist George Schaller who made some of the first observations about the actual sex of wild pandas. In 1981, he followed a female named Zhen-Zhen, as well as two male pandas - one large and one cub. "The little male approaches, moaning and is quickly attacked again, although all I hear is grunting, roaring and moaning like a pack of dogs fighting and I see the bamboo shaking violently," he writes in The Giant Pandas of Wolong.

It turns out that three or more trios are the norm for giant pandas in the wild, an arrangement that would be difficult to replicate in any zoo. In just over three hours, Schaller recorded the large male mating with Zhen-Zhen at least 48 times, or about once every three minutes. That's a lot more sex than most humans have in a year.

This intensity and frequency of sexual intercourse may explain the observation that pandas are much more productive in the wild than in captivity. A long-term study of pandas with transmitter collars in the Qingling Mountains in Shaanxi Province found that females give birth reliably every two years and 60% of pups survive until their first birthday. "Based on its reproductive potential, the giant panda remains a species that has successfully evolved," zoologist Pan Wenshi and colleagues wrote in 2004.

If you still cling to the stereotype of the unhealthy panda, there is another truth about pandas that you need to digest. This species, in one form or another, has existed for some 20 million years.

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