The giant panda seemed to be in a world of his own—he was lying on the grass and nibbling bamboo shoots, oblivious to people jostling for a view.
I had the surrealistic experience of seeing pandas at the Smithsonian's National Zoo at Washington DC in the US recently. As you may know, there are only less than 2,000 giant pandas left in the world.
The zoo has three giant pandas. Mei Xiang is a 19-year-old fun-loving female panda who loves climbing trees. Tian Tian, the other adult panda in the zoo, is a bit demanding—he tends to be restless and paces back and forth in the habitat when he needs food or water. Both Mei Xiang and Tian Tian were born at the Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda in Wolong, China. Bei Bei, the panda cub celebrated his second birthday in August last year.
With cold water pipes, pools and streams, the zoo offers them a habitat that mimics their natural habitat in China. The habitat also has trees and rocks, which allow them to stay fit and satisfy their climbing instinct. In summer, pandas spend a lot of time at the fog grove in the habitat.
Pandas are smart when it comes to communicating their availability to potential mates. They mark trees and rocks with their scents. A mate can easily decode the scent and find out about the panda's personal details like age and willingness to mate.
Giant pandas, that belong to the family of bears, are solitary animals. They generally meet only to mate. ''The pandas here spend most of their time alone,'' says a volunteer who works at the zoo.
Panda poop is widely used for scientific research. Fecal samples from pandas give insights into their gut bacteria and digestive problems. An adult panda eats 12-15 kg of bamboo a day which turns into 10 kg of feces. Chinese companies are trying to make the most of panda poop by converting it into tissue paper and making biofuel with the help of the microbes in it.