One of the first things we think of when we think about bamboo is the adorable, black and white, national mascot of China. The giant panda is an iconic creature who famously lives on a diet of bamboo. Pandas are also well known as the symbol of the World Wildlife Federation, defenders of endangered species. What most people might not know, however, is that the giant panda is not the only bamboo-eating animal on the endangered list.
Between Central China, sub-Saharan Africa and the island of Madagascar, there are actually three animals who rely heavily on a diet of bamboo and are currently listed as endangered species. The giant panda may be the most celebrated animal in this exclusive club, but the mountain gorilla of Uganda and the bamboo lemur of Madagascar are just as lovable and equally at risk of extinction.
The Giant Panda: Bamboo lover of Central China
By far the most famous bamboo consumer on earth, a Chinese giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) can eat as much as 80 pounds of bamboo a day. And although an adult male can weigh up to 350 pounds and display bone-crushing jaws lined with ferocious canines, the panda is actually adorable and almost entirely vegetarian.
In fact, bamboo makes up about 99 percent of the giant panda’s diet. The remaining one percent consists of assorted vegetation and an occasional rodent. Like all bears, pandas belong to the carnivorous order of mammals. And their teeth provide clear evidence of this meat-eating heritage. Yet they seldom sink them into a morsel of flesh.
Instead, those powerful mandibles and formidable choppers make meals out of bamboo, that woody grass that’s strong enough to build houses. Pandas prefer the soft young bamboo shoots, which are easier to chew and more nutritious. But those are something of a rare delicacy, only available early in the growing season. For the most part, the black and white bears nibble on crispy bamboo leaves and spend their days gnawing through thick, woody bamboo canes.
Of the 1,200 or more species of bamboo, the pandas seem to eat about 40 different varieties. A few species of the genus Fargesia make up the bulk of their diet in the mountains of southern China. But in captivity, they have a wider variety to choose from. Zookeepers typically struggle to scour their bamboo sources and keep up with the voracious demand.
Panda status and distribution
The giant panda habitat once covered a great swath of central Asia, extending from Vietnam and all across eastern and southern China. Hunting and other human activities nearly drove the panda to extinction in the latter half of the 20th century, but wildlife refuges and other conservation efforts have gradually succeeded in reversing that trend. Today there are more than 40 panda bear reserves in China, primarily in and around the mountainous forests of the Sichuan Province.
In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reclassified the giant panda from endangered to vulnerable. Current estimates put their total population between 2-3,000.
Even so, the survival of the species is anything but certain. Relying on just one plant puts the pandas in a vulnerable position. Sometimes a species of bamboo will flower gregariously, meaning the every plant of that species flowers at the same time, then goes to seed and dies. Suddenly, the pandas face a hunger crisis. Furthermore, climate change is now creating additional stress on sensitive habitats. But if you have to depend on one plant for all your needs, you’d be hard pressed to find one as resilient and renewable as bamboo.
The Bamboo Lemur of Madagascar
If you know anything about Madagascar, you probably know it’s a treasure trove of biodiversity. Some of the most exotic species of flora and fauna can be found on this banana-shaped island in the South Indian Ocean. Bamboo lemurs are a prime example of this diversity, with just a handful of species. Among them are the golden bamboo lemur (Hapalemur aureus) and the greater bamboo lemur (Prolemur simus).
Found nowhere else but Madagascar, these tree dwelling primates eat almost nothing but bamboo. In fact, the crepuscular critters are one of just two or three primates who primarily feed on bamboo. And most of their diet comes from just one species, Cathariostachys madagascariensis, which only grows on this tropical island. But like the panda bear, over-dependence on a single food source is putting the bamboo lemur’s survival at risk.
This rare bamboo has unusually high levels of cyanide in its shoots. But that is not the problem. Somehow, the bamboo lemurs are able to process the plant’s cyanide without issue. The problem, not surprisingly, has more to do with humans.
Slash and burn agriculture methods have wreaked havoc on the pristine paradise of Madagascar, much like they have in Brazil and Sumatra. C. madagascariensis, also called Madagascar giant bamboo, only grows in certain parts of the island, at elevations around 3,000 feet. But as farmers systematically destroy the forests, the groves of bamboo get fewer and further between.
There are actually several varieties of bamboo that only occur on Madagascar. But this species has a special relationship with the lemurs. So when this delicate balance gets disrupted, that spells disaster for the bamboo lemur. Again, the bamboo will probably find a way to survive and recover. But unfortunately, the outlook for the golden bamboo lemur is not so rosy. Their population has fallen to about 1,000, and they are now listed as critically endangered.
The Bamboo Grinding Gorilla
Bamboo lemurs aren’t the only primates to enjoy a fulfilling meal of woody grass. Of course, humans have been eating bamboo shoots for thousands of years, alongside a great variety of grains, vegetables and animal products. But take a look at the eastern mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei). It doesn’t consume as much bamboo as a panda bear, but it can out eat any human, hands down.
Among the largest of all primates, though smaller than its eastern gorilla cousin of the lower elevations, the mountain gorilla will travel long distances to secure a meal of bamboo shoots. A strict vegetarian, this great ape eats leaves, stems, flowers and roots from a wide range of trees and shrubs. But in the early spring, the gorillas go in search of bamboo for their tender, young shoots.
African mountain bamboo, Oldeania alpina, and Yushania alpina are the chief variety of bamboo available in the mountain gorilla’s territory. The ape and the bamboo both thrive in the higher altitudes of central Africa. The ape is especially limited to Uganda and the Central African Republic, at elevations of 7-14,000 feet.
Loss of habitat, political strife and poaching have all contributed to the mountain gorilla’s shrinking numbers. The population reached its low point in 1981, when there were only about 250 of them. Today there are believed to be about 1,000 left in the wild. The IUCN lists them as endangered.
Thankfully, conservationists are going to great lengths to preserve the mountain gorillas’ shrinking habitat and diminishing food supply. EcoPlanet Bamboo, based in the U.S., is one of the largest bamboo growing enterprises in the world, with thousands of acres in Africa and Central America. They are currently working in partnership with the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) to reforest the Volcanoes National Park, an important wildlife preserve in Rwanda, with Yushania alpina.
Africa’s Golden Monkey
Sharing some of the same habitat with the mountain gorilla, the golden monkey (Cercopithecus kandti) also roams the mountains of central Africa. Bamboo, namely Oldeania alpina and Yushania alpina, makes up the preponderance of the monkey’s diet, more so than for the gorilla. They also enjoy fresh, tropical fruits when they’re available.
Habitat devastation, resulting from civil wars in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other human activities, has put this old world monkey at great risk of extinction. The IUCN lists them as endangered. Like the mountain gorilla, the golden monkey is protected in wildlife refuges in the Virunga Mountains.
Conservation and preservation
Slash and burn agriculture, over-development and other unsustainable practices continue to perpetuate climate change. Around the world, sensitive ecosystems are shifting out of balance, and species are disappearing at an alarming rate. Giant pandas, Madagascar bamboo lemurs and mountain gorillas each have a special relationship with bamboo. Namely, they eat it and depend on it to live.
But harvesting bamboo is not the problem. These exotic animal populations subsist on very specific varieties of bamboo. And these are not the bamboo species that we commonly use for flooring, clothing and construction. In other words, if you’re trying to protect these bamboo-eating species, don’t think you can do it by boycotting bamboo.
Bamboo is still one of the most promising instruments in our tool box when it comes to fighting climate change. In terms of renewability, nothing else comes close. So consider bamboo, before you buy something made from wood or plastic. And if you’re looking for a pet project to sponsor in the developing world, consider adopting a plot of forest in Madagascar or planting a grove of bamboo in Uganda.
If you enjoyed this article about bamboo and endangered species, you might also enjoy reading more about the incredible diversity and utility of bamboo. Check out some of these other engaging blog posts.
- Introducing bamboo: Genus by genus
- Bamboo in Africa
- Where does bamboo come from?
- Giant bamboo species
- Edible bamboo shoots
FEATURED IMAGE: Collage of Mountain Gorilla, Giant Panda and Bamboo Lemur, all feasting on their favorite snacks.