Despite great progress in research and breeding, captive-bred pandas have yet to be successfully released into the wild
PHOTO BY GETTY
Mid-January is the coldest time of the year in Sichuan Province, where pandas have lived and bred for millennia. Unlike their more adaptable bear-brethren, however, giant pandas never hibernate. They don’t absorb enough energy from their food to do so.
The world’s only almost exclusively herbivorous species of bear, giant pandas have retained their cuddly image despite being filmed ripping apart decomposing water buffalo by a local forestry bureau in November 2011. Perhaps the panda in question was channeling a carnivorous ancestor as it feasted. Despite the unphotogenic break from its usual diet, a forestry bureau employee said that the animal was clearly “enjoying the meal.”
“Looks can be deceiving,” said Zhang Hemin, director of the China Research and Conservation Center of the Giant Panda (CRCCGP), based in Sichuan. According to local reports, pandas have been known to attack domestic goats in remote rural communities. The giant panda’s digestive system is in fact better designed to handle meat than bamboo, as are its powerful jaws. It remains a mystery why this large mammal switched to its bamboo diet, which has slowed down its metabolism and left it at the mercy of even the slightest fluctuations in its food supply. However, this new footage proves that pandas will gladly chomp on a piece of meat if it comes their way.
“Pandas eating meat is atavism – a reversion to a previous state of being,” Zhang Hemin told NewsChina. “If pandas come across animal carcasses or crops of mushrooms, they will eat them. But they move too slowly to prey on live animals.”
Eight million years ago, the primal panda, ancestor of today’s giant panda, subsisted on meat. About 2 million years ago, the dwarf panda, a smaller ancestor of the giant panda, switched to a vegetarian diet, apparently in response to climate change. “Today’s pandas spend about 16 hours a day eating, consuming some 30 kilograms of bamboo in the process,” Zhang told our reporter. “This is proof that the panda’s digestive system hasn’t evolved to properly metabolize vegetation.”
The mysterious life of the panda has only become a matter of public record in the past century, since the animal’s cute and placid appearance won the hearts of conservationists worldwide, followed closely by the general public. Almost as soon as the giant panda was cataloged it became apparent that the species was under threat from habitat destruction and human activity, and it soon became the mascot of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
In-captivity breeding started in the 1950s in China, with the first successful birth taking place at the Beijing Zoo in 1963. However, systematic study of this notoriously fussy and reclusive animal didn’t begin until 1978. Even today, despite massive strides being made through observation of giant pandas in captivity, study of their behavior in the wild remains patchy at best. Attempts to introduce captive-bred pandas to the wild have been equally unsuccessful.
Jinke is a two and a half year old giant panda, just out of infancy. Sleeping under a tree in the yard of the Bifengxia Base of the CRCCGP, Jinke is every inch the clumsy, roly-poly panda of a child’s dreams. When his playmate Xianglin approaches him, however, Jinke rears up, snarls, and attempts to maul him. This less-than-cuddly behavior is more common among pandas than most visitors to the breeding center, raised on the carefully-cultivated public image of pandas as the definitive gentle giants, might think. Most staff members at the base bear scars and scratches from unpleasant encounters with their aggressive charges.
Pandas, like all bear species, can be fiercely territorial. Zhang Hemin told our reporter that pandas, especially nursing females, have been known to attack humans who trespass in their territory.
Over decades, the panda has become China’s unofficial national animal, prized for its cuddly looks as much as for its endangered status. Its earliest appearance in the West dates back to 1869 when French missionary Armand David sent a specimen back to Paris. In 1936, a live panda was brought to the United States for the first time by fashion designer and socialite Ruth Harkness. In 1941, the Kuomintang government sent the first panda as a goodwill gift to the United States, which marked the beginning of the so-called “panda diplomacy” between China and the rest of the world that persists to this day. From 1957 to 1982, a total of 23 pandas were sent to nine countries as “national gifts,” including the former Soviet Union, Japan, the United States and North Korea.
Despite the species jetting off to distant climes, however, pandas remained stubbornly resistant to captive breeding. Moreover, growing demand for these precious gifts was putting even greater strain on the rapidly dwindling wild population. The Chinese government curtailed the gifting of pandas to foreign countries in 1982. After that, pandas were only leased abroad for a decade at a time.
In 1983, large areas of the bashania fangiana bamboo, the panda’s staple food, in the giant pandas’ habitat that covers parts of Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces started blossoming – which, in most bamboo species, only happens prior to death. The very survival of the panda was suddenly threatened by a possible loss of its major food source. Giant pandas in the wilderness were captured and taken to panda research centers to be fed artificially.
Later scientific research indicated that though bamboo flowering every 60 years would not lead to the giant panda’s extinction, it would undoubtedly reduce the numbers of pandas in the wild. Scientists and conservationists argue that bamboo flowering also helps the process of natural selection, with the strongest, fittest pandas migrating to greener pastures, and wild populations stabilizing in 20 years or so. Nevertheless, from 1980 to 1990, a total of 18 wild pandas were captured and kept at the Bifengxia center for research purposes.
Despite the jump in numbers, captive breeding remained an elusive goal. At the same time, wild breeding was seemingly in terminal decline. According to field research by Professor Pan Wenshi of Peking University, the fertility rate in populations of wild pandas was only 4.1 percent. Captive pandas had even lower rates of fertility, with the animals seemingly losing all interest in mating once they were caged. Worse still, the survival rate before 1990 of baby pandas in captivity was only 33 percent. Many research centers and zoos lacked the expertise to raise pandas in a nurturing environment, with many reduced to living in concrete bunkers, hand-fed by humans.
In 1991, the CRCCGP started a research program tackling key problems in captive breeding. Over more than 10 years, Zhang Hemin and his colleagues gradually adjusted the pandas’ diets and living conditions to bring them more in line with their natural habitats. They also started training programs to encourage the development of social behavior between pandas, and reduce dependency on human contact, which had in some cases led to the virtual domestication of captive pandas. The efforts to comply with the laws of nature worked well in raising fertility rates and, in 2002, the program was declared a success.
The number of pandas born in the CRCCGP increased exponentially after 2003. Each year, about 15 cubs were born in the center and the record 17 were born in 2006. However, increasing the number of the pandas in the center was not the ultimate purpose of Zhang’s research. Unlimited breeding of pandas in captivity would not solve the problem of a dwindling wild population, and could even negatively affect the genetic diversity of the species. The introduction of captive-bred pandas into the wild became the Holy Grail of Zhang’s conservation team. As the numbers of newly-born panda cubs began to rise in 2003, Zhang picked a two-year old panda called Xiangxiang as one of the first captive-bred pandas that would ultimately be released into the wild.
Xiangxiang’s prospects looked good. He was the strongest of the pandas chosen for the program, and the only one which had never fallen ill. A training regimen was designed to strengthen Xiangxiang’s physical fitness and reduce his dependency on the human beings. However, Xiangxiang still struggled to adapt to wild living, particularly to the parasites and bacteria to which wild pandas had developed an immunity. In the first summer of his training, Xiangxiang was attacked by dozens of leeches which clung all over his body. However, the conservation team remained confident that Xiangxiang would eventually adapt to life in the wild. In April 2006, Xiangxiang was carried to a secluded spot in Sichuan’s Wolong National Nature Reserve, home to China’s largest concentration of wild giant pandas. Once his cage was opened, Xiangxiang immediately trotted away into the woods.
Ten months later, despite three years of training, Xiangxiang’s body was unexpectedly spotted in the snow by a search party sent to check on his progress. The autopsy indicated that Xiangxiang, whose body bore several wounds, had been killed by falling from a high ledge, possibly during a fight with another panda.
Zhang Hemin burst into tears when he heard the news. Yet, his goal to introduce a captive-bred panda into the wild remained unchanged. Greater emphasis on genetic selection was introduced to the rearing process. Selectively-bred pandas proved more resistant to disease and better equipped to deal with physical challenges. The center also tried to encourage mother pandas to raise cubs by themselves, allowing cubs to learn survival techniques from an earlier age, and from other pandas.
In 2010, the CRCCGP started a new reintroduction program. The pandas to be released would be entirely raised and coached by their mothers, free from all artificial intervention. Zhang Hemin maintains that this method is the best way to reintroduce pandas to the wild. But still, he and his team remain cautious about their chance of success. “No scientific technical standards for the introduction of captive-bred pandas into the wild exist,” he said.
Though he may bare his teeth from time to time, Jinke, in the eyes of Zhang Hemin, is unlikely to know a life outside an enclosure. However, Zhang doesn’t believe the future of Jinke’s species lies in zoos. “In the end, they belong in nature, and nature alone,” he told our reporter.
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Sep 2011 | Submitted by Brian Snelson
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