Giant Panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca

The animal we all know (and love) as the panda, the cuddly-looking, lumbering, black-and-white creature, is properly known as the Giant Panda. Always a rare animal, it was considered by the Chinese to be a semi-divine creature during the second century. Currently classified as being a member of the Ursidae (bear family), zoologists have suggested that it has its own family (Ailuropodidae), as its feet, skull, jaws and teeth are markedly different from bears. Indeed the name Ailuropod means "cat feet", referring to the catlike pads on its paws. It is unrelated to the red panda, which is a member of the raccoon family.

Native to China and Burma, the panda was discovered by Western scientists in 1869, when Armand David was shown panda furs, but it was not spotted in the wild until about 1914. Nowadays, hunting, and the destruction of its habitat, have reduced numbers in the wild to around 1,000, mostly in the bamboo forests in the Szechwan province of China (although some also live in Kansu and Shensi provinces). As it is an endangered species, the Chinese Government have designated these areas as nature preserves, and have instigated a protection program.

Growing to about 5 feet (1.5 metres) in length (about three feet tall at the shoulder when on the ground), and averaging around 200 pounds (95 kg), the panda lives only in bamboo forests, feeding almost exclusively on the young bamboo shoots. Its strong teeth and jaws are admirably equipped to deal with the tough growth, but its digestive system is not, being more akin to that of a carnivore. As a result, it must eat vast quantities in order to extract sufficient nutrients - in fact, a panda will typically eat between 30 and 65 pounds of bamboo a day (around a quarter of its own body weight), which takes up almost all its waking time!

Agile in the trees, the panda is relatively clumsy on the ground, either waddling or running in typically bear-like fashion. Although many consider them to be harmless and cuddly, they are formidable fighters when pressed, and capable of defending themselves admirably (they have no real predators, other then Man). Their hands have an unusual feature - a bony spur from the base of the wrist, which acts in the same way as a thumb. This enables them to manipulate their food efficiently - just as well when you consider the amount they must eat to survive!

Socially, pandas are generally solitary creatures, 'marking' their territory to alert other pandas. These territories do sometimes overlap, and encounters with neighbours are rarely hostile. They become sexually mature at age five or six, mating during the Spring, and giving birth after a gestation period of between four and five months. Newborn pandas are totally helpless, weighing in at about 4 ounces (100 g), and needing constant maternal attention. The young panda will open its eyes after about 6-7 weeks, and begins crawling a month later, after which it begins feeding itself.

In the wild, they live to around 15 years, although in captivity they may live as long as 30.

Pandas in captivity

Their endangered status and slow reproductive cycle means that their numbers in the wild are still declining, despite efforts to preserve their environment and prevent poaching. The Chinese Government has therefore taken steps to preserve the species, in parallel with its giving of pandas as gifts as a mark of friendship to other nations. The first of these was Su-Lin, given to the US in 1936, and exhibited at Brookfield Zoo near Chicago, the first panda seen in the West. In total, there are currently about 140 pandas in captivity, mostly in China itself, where much research is carried out to support the breeding and preservation programme.

This, and the worldwide concern for the species, has led to pandas being kept in many zoos in East and West. Persistent attempts have been made to breed them in captivity, with varying success. To date there have been over 200 live births in captivity since the first successful breeding in Beijing in 1963. Of these, only 60% survive for more than a month, and only about one-third live to adulthood.

Although they have a reputation of being fussy eaters, in captivity they are fed on a mixed diet, including cereals and milk, as well as a wider variety of vegetables (sugar cane, rice gruel, carrots, apples, and sweet potatoes).

Endangered and protected

Many organisations exist to protect the giant panda, the best-known of which is the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), who have adopted it as their symbol. The Chinese have set up protection programs, and police the reserves to deter and catch poachers, with some success. The breeding program mentioned earlier is growing, and becoming more successful, and attempt are being made to reintroduce the species back into Burma.

With over 30 reservations in total, China naturally plays a major role, but Western organisations have provided support. The WWF has been involved with the conservation programme since 1981, offering financial support and publicity to the team under George Schaller at the Wolong Reserve.

We can only hope that their efforts are successful, and the we will continue to see these beautiful and unusual creatures thriving in the wild again.
Encyclopaedia Britannica

Afterthought: "Panda" is also the name given to police beat patrol cars in the UK and many other areas of the world.

In 1982, fifteen thousand ounces of gold converged on Shanghai to make history. With the help of the China Mint, they became the first one ounce gold Pandas, and were quickly to become a smash hit in the gold bullion coin market.

History of the Panda

Not only were they cute, but over the next few years collectors were treated to a unique treat; unlike the gold coins issued by other countries around the world, the panda design on the Panda changed each year. This, the beauty of these coins, and the small mintages made these coins so popular that they were quickly trading at many times the bullion price. Responding to demand, the mintage for the one ounce panda increased to about 130,000 in 1985, yet this still pales compared to the almost one and a half million gold U.S. Eagles struck that year. From 1989 to 1996, demand for all gold bullion was down, and fewer than fifty thousand one ounce gold pandas escaped China that year. Since '97, production has been pretty stable at between 120,000 and 150,000 per year.

In addition to the one ounce coins, gold Pandas are also made in half-ounce, quarter-ounce, and tenth-ounce sizes, and twentieth-ounce coins have been included in the lineup since 1983.

While all one ounce bullion gold coins contain an ounce of gold, some are alloyed with silver and/or copper, which makes them more resistant to wear. Eagles and Krugerrands are 91.6% gold and sold in tubes. Pandas (and others, such as the Austrian Philharmonic) are 99.9% gold and packaged individually sealed in plastic.

In 1986, both China and the United States decided to get into the proof game. Once again, the U.S. seemed to go for volume. For every one of the ten thousand one ounce Panda proofs, there were forty four proof Eagles. And while the U.S. issued Eagle proofs only in the one ounce size, there were super-shiny Pandas in all five denominations, mostly sold in sets with one of each size. Proofs of smaller Eagles were introduced in 1988 and continue to be produced to this day, while Panda proofs became extinct in 1995.

In 1989, the gold Panda got a baby brother: the silver Panda. As with most silver bullion coins, it comes mostly in a one ounce size, though five- and twelve-ounce coins aren't hard to come by. The Mint began a dalliance with a half-ounce version in 1993, but it didn't last and the last one was seen in 1998. It's also easy to find the one-kilogram silver Panda, but I don't know if they make them every year.

The Panda Design

As I said, the panda depicted on the coin is different each year — though in any given year, the gold and silver Pandas have the same design — but it always involves a panda and bamboo, whether he's climbing it, playing with it, eating it, or what have you. This is one of the factors that made them so popular. But in 2002, the Mint for some reason re-used the design from 2001, and announced that that would be the image from then on. A mighty cry arose from the investors and collectors of the world, and the Mint bowed before it, going with a new design for 2003.

The panda appears on the reverse, along with the face value (which was 100 yuan for the one ounce coin through 2000, then changed to 500) and the designation of weight and fineness, written in English. Or you might say it's a combination of Arabic, English, and Latin. The one ounce coin says 1 oz Au .999 (Ag for the silver of course.)

There have been only three designs for the obverse, each being an image of the Hall of Prayer for Abundant Harvests in the Temple of Heaven, with the date at the bottom and some Chinese writing around the top. The first image was used from 1982 until 1991, the second until 1999, and the third one is still going strong as of 2004.

Other Pandas

Little interest is shown in the brass Panda internationally, but they are distinctive in that they are the only Pandas that are not round, but octagonal. As with the Eagle, the platinum version has a relatively small audience.

There are several other kinds of Panda that hold no interest for serious collectors. There are bimetallic coins, with a gold center bearing the panda surrounded by a ring of silver (these coins definitely do not share the same panda design as the "real" Pandas), and "colorized" Pandas, and who knows what else.

Then there are the commemoratives. As with all mints, the China Mint produces commemorative coins, sometimes seemingly at the drop of a coolie's hat. These are generally not well respected nor have any great value. But in 1991, the Mint created a commemorative on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Panda. The reverse image consisted of a central large panda (I don't know if it's the same image as that year's Pandas, but I would hope that it is), and around the edge were miniature images of the first ten Panda designs. It is said to be the largest gold coin in the world, measuring fifteen centimeters across and weighing five kilograms. You don't have one in your collection? That might be related to the fact that they only made ten of them! As you might guess, these sell at many times the bullion price, though I don't know when was the last time that one changed hands.

The Panda and Me

I've been buying Pandas as part of my bullion investments because they're just so darn cute! I've always found silver coins more attractive than gold, and all my Pandas so far are silver. I just bought some gold ones, though, and even though I'm sure I'll like the silver better, I still believe they will look better than my other gold coins. It is often said that the twenty dollar U.S. gold coin known as the St. Gaudens (after the designer, Augustus St. Gaudens) is the most beautiful coin ever made (maybe sometimes qualified with "U.S. coin"), but believe me, it doesn't hold a candle to the Chinese Panda.

Pan"da (?), n. Zool.

A small Asiatic mammal (Ailurus fulgens) having fine soft fur. It is related to the bears, and inhabits the mountains of Northern India.


© Webster 1913.

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