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The panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca, lit. "black and white cat-foot"), also known as the giant panda to distinguish it from the unrelated red panda, is a bear native to central-western and south western China. It is easily recognized by its large, distinctive black patches around the eyes, over the ears, and across its round body. Though it belongs to the order Carnivora, the panda's diet is 99% bamboo. Pandas in the wild will occasionally eat other grasses, wild tubers, or even meat in the form of birds, rodents or carrion. In captivity they may receive honey, eggs, fish, yams, shrub leaves, oranges, or bananas along with specially prepared food. The giant panda lives in a few mountain ranges in central China, mainly in Sichuan province, but also in the Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. As a result of farming, deforestation and other development, the panda has been driven out of the lowland areas where it once lived.
For many decades the precise taxonomic classification of the giant panda was under debate because it shares characteristics of both bears and raccoons. However, molecular studies suggest that the giant panda is a true bear and part of the Ursidae family, though it differentiated early in history from the main ursine stock. The giant panda's closest extant relative is the spectacled bear of South America. The giant panda has been referred to as a living fossil.
Despite the shared name, habitat type, and diet, as well as a unique enlarged bone called the pseudo thumb (which helps them grip the bamboo shoots they eat), the giant panda and red panda are only distantly related. Molecular studies have placed the red panda in its own family Ailuridae, and not under Ursidae.
The giant panda is an endangered species, threatened by continued habitat loss and by a very low birthrate, both in the wild and in captivity.
The giant panda has been a target for poaching by locals since ancient times and by foreigners since it was introduced to the West. Starting in the 1930s, foreigners were unable to poach giant pandas in China because of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War, but pandas remained a source of soft furs for the locals. The population boom in China after 1949 created stress on the pandas' habitat, and the subsequent famines led to the increased hunting of wildlife, including pandas.
In 2006, scientists reported that the number of pandas living in the wild may have been underestimated at about 1,000. Previous population surveys had used conventional methods to estimate the size of the wild panda population, but using a new method that analyzes DNA from panda droppings, scientists believe that the wild panda population may be as large as 3,000.
The giant panda is among the world's most adored and protected rare animals, and is one of the few in the world whose natural inhabitant status was able to gain a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. The Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries, located in the southwest Sichuan province and covering seven natural reserves, were inscribed onto the World Heritage List in 2006.