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Tom Kellie

Giant Pandas: Quality Over Quantity

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http://africa.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2017-06/20/content_29819321.htm

 

~ This June, 2017 article published in China Daily was written by the Director of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland's Giant Panda Programme.

 

He notes that giant panda conservation is holistic, with careful management of gene flow between captive and wild populations.

 

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I'm relieved to see this change in focus, to be honest.  I volunteered at the Bifengxia panda base in 2011. At the time they were extremely strict in determining which zoos would get pandas on loan.  It was a luxury and required meeting a stringent list of qualifications, even for institutions within China.  In the years since, as they became experts in captive breeding and were left with a bumper crop of captive pandas and no place to put them, the requirements became more lax and some pandas have been put in zoos where they've died due to lax standards (poisoned by cleaning chemicals) or had to be "rescued" from malnourishment and failure to thrive due to no mental enrichment or interaction.  It's been hard to watch.

 

Likewise, one bear that was part of my duty, Lu Lu, is a champion at natural mating (not many are, they're very clueless and the breeding teams need to rely on artificial insemination more often than not).  As such, Lu Lu has sired something ridiculous like 35% of the captive pandas, which obviously cuts down on viable matches in future generations.  But the breeders were routinely mating him with 7-10 females every season.

 

At the US zoos I follow, I've become increasingly concerned that they are rushing the weaning process to ensure the females are ready to go into estrus in the early spring.  It only happens once a year (which is why pandas don't breed well generally) and I've seen a few times now the teams in Atlanta and DC pushing the weaning cub faster than nature might intend just so that the female doesn't miss this year's window.  Cubs generally aren't fully weaned until 18 months which means usually the mothers miss a year of estrus waiting for the cubs to wean.  In China, they actually did try for a time giving the 6 month cubs to a wet nurse so that they could push the females into estrus a year earlier than planned (indeed a year after they'd conceived the weaning cub) but that was abandoned after a year or two with no reason given.

 

The captive born females giving birth in the wild and the wild releases of captive born bears not exposed to humans aren't hugely successful.  That number is in the very low double-digits.

 

So as you can see, I have some strong feelings on the matter, LOL!  I'm all for increasing the numbers, but not at the detriment of too many captive bears and no where safe and healthy to put them.  They need the wild reintegration to be more successful before they start turning up the volume again.

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~ @amybatt

 

Your comprehensive response is impressive!

 

With such substantial hands-on experience, you're in an ideal position to appreciate the full dynamics of the Giant Panda breeding system.

 

What you explained with such wonderful clarity plainly presents the factors involved in both mating and subsequent distribution of Giant Panda cubs.

 

There are two areas in this country where Giant Panda live in the wild.

 

In Sichuan, the bulk of the Giant Panda population lives, the research is carried out, and the breeding occurs. That's also the center of Giant Panda tourism.

 

However, there is another area, where no tourists are permitted, no breeding occurs, and Giant Pandas proliferate in peace, save for occasional observation by life science researchers from the local university.

 

As it happens, that's exactly where I work and live, in connection with the very department at the very university.

 

You and I are linked across the globe with a surprising common interest. 

 

Many, many hearty thanks for your entertaining and informative post. It was great fun to read!

 

Tom K.

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Great minds think alike, Tom!

 

I'm envious of your location, then.  On the odd chance you're out and about and just happen to come across a wild panda!  I say this only partially tongue-in-cheek because it is known to happen!  What if any encroachment on their territory is there?  I know it's considered a problem in the Sichuan area.

 

One other interesting tidbit...there seems to be two different panda agencies in China.  The one in Chengdu (which provides pandas to Atlanta and San Diego zoos, and to which they return when the leases are up) and the one in BiFengXia/Dujiangyan which loans out the pandas to DC, Memphis, Edinburgh, etc.  The charity that sponsored my trip there supports the Bifengxia base but we visited the other as well. I could only gather that they are different in that one is funded by the Forestry department and another by an Environmental department, but they're oddly ignorant of each other and tend not to collaborate.  Strange arrangement, I think.  If they pooled their resources....

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Posted (edited)

~ @amybatt

 

This area is 100% off-limits to everyone, aside from local bonafide researchers, to provide an unperturbed habitat to both Giant Pandas and other species.

 

Encroachment is essentially non-existent, unlike in other natural areas in this country.

 

There's a well-established tradition here of non-interference...the ultimate “no go policy”.

 

Poaching here is unknown, not even clandestinely. No market, no local interest.

 

The forests are verdant, thick and steep, with a remarkable variety of tree species, ranging from wild gingko to spruce, to fir, to bananas.

 

The Giant Panda breeding/marketing agencies aren't allowed here, as it's under direct protection of the very “top”.

 

No tours. No photography guides for a fee. No local officials on a quick selfie with a Giant Panda jag.

 

Quiet. 

 

This is the absolute geographic center of this nation. There's a spiritual tradition which is invoked to protect what thrives here.

 

Yours truly relocated here for a reason, which may be fairly self-evident from the above.

 

I'm the one and only “foreigner” researcher in these parts, which is the reward for 17 years in the capital.

 

The Giant Panda sub-species here is Ailuropoda melanoleuca qinlingensis, which is somewhat smaller, with a brownish tinge on fur that's typically black.

 

Despite the assorted restrictions, prohibitions, deficiencies and coarse decorum, there are remarkable blessings from working here, including wonderfully clean air.

 

That's about as much as ought to be said. Thank you for the great post above!

 

Tom K.

Edited by Tom Kellie
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