Pandas are the world’s most famous endangered animal. Their survival is threatened mostly by loss of habitat, and this is related to economic and population growth in China. Poaching can also be a problem. One reason the panda is so vulnerable is that bamboo dies off periodically after blooming and pandas so dislike people that they would starve rather than cross an inhabited area to find a fresh source of food.
The slow reproductive rate of pandas makes reviving their population difficult. Another problem is inbreeding. Inbreeding can make it difficult for pandas to reproduce and makes them vulnerable to disease. Genetic studies though have shown that inbreeding is not a problem.
Existing pandas are doing pretty well. One area studied by Chinese naturalist Pan Wenshi in the Qin Ling mountains in Shaanxi with a population of 80 pandas recorded 11 birth and 4 deaths in a seven month period. Also encouraging are the results of recent censuses of panda populations. (See Panda Numbers).
Good Websites and Sources: San Diego Zoo sandiegozoo.org ; Wikipedia article wikipedia.org and and panda.org ; National Zoo nationalzoo.si.edu ; Pandas International pandasinternational.org ; World Wildlife Fund worldwildlife.org ; National Geographic for Kids kids.nationalgeographic.com/Animals and nationalgeographic.com ; Book: Last Panda by George Schaller (University of Chicago). Facilities: Wolong Giant Panda Protection and Research Center; Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base. Links in this Website: PANDAS Factsanddetails.com/China ; ENDANGERED PANDAS Factsanddetails.com/China ; SICHUAN PROVINCES AROUND CHENGDU, with sections on Wolong and Breeding Centers in Chengdu Factsanddetails.com/China On Wild Animals in China: Living National Treasures: China lntreasures.com/china ; Animal Info animalinfo.org ; ARKive (do a Search for China or the Animal Species You Want) arkive.org Animal Picture Archives (do a Search for the Animal Species You Want) animalpicturesarchive Endangered Animals in China ifce.org/endanger ; Animals Asia Campaign to Help Animals animalsasia.org ; Plants in China: Flora of China flora.huh.harvard.edu ; Plant Meaning and Symbolism Chinatown Connection
Links in this Website: ANIMALS AND PLANTS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; PREHISTORIC ANIMALS AND DINOSAURS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; PANGOLINS, DEER AND TIGERS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; Factsanddetails.com/China ; SNUB-NOSED AND GOLDEN MONKEYS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; ALLIGATORS, RIVER DOLPHINS AND GIANT SALAMANDERS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CRANES, CORMORANTS AND OTHER BIRDS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN ANIMALS AND PLANTS Factsanddetails.com/China ; SNOW LEOPARDS Factsanddetails.com/China ; SHAHTOOSH AND CHIRUS Factsanddetails.com/China ; YAKS Factsanddetails.com/China ; PETS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; DOGS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE DOG BREEDS Factsanddetails.com/China ; WEIRD FOODS IN CHINA NO. 1 Factsanddetails.com/China ; WEIRD FOODS IN CHINA NO. 2 Factsanddetails.com/China ; ANIMAL PARTS AND CHINESE MEDICINE Factsanddetails.com/China
One threat that pandas face is natural: sporadic bamboo die-offs which occur every 40 to 120 years. Bamboo usually reproduces by sending up new shoots, but for reasons not yet understood from time to time the plants flower, seed and then die off en masse. Sometimes, all of the bamboo across in an entire region suddenly die offs in one fell swoop.
Most pandas are able to survive a die-off by finding bamboo somewhere or switching to another species of the plant, but some die-offs result in the death of hundreds of pandas. The last major die-off occurred in 1983. Scientist anticipated the event since some bamboo bloomed prematurely the year before. Even though dozens of pandas died, many animals that might have died were saved by being moved to areas where there was sufficient bamboo.
In the 1970s more than 130 pandas died when a species of bamboo found in the Minshan mountains in Sichuan flowered and died. In the old days when die offs occurred it was easer for panda’s to simply migrate to an area with more bamboo. But these days their habitats are fragmented and human settlements may block them from reaching bamboo supplies.
During the bamboo die-off in the 1980s, many pandas wandered into villages. Some were rescued and formed the early core of the panda conservation program.
Pandas and Loss of Habitat
Deforestation and loss of habitat As China’s human population has grown the panda’s habitat has shrunk. Since the 1960s the panda’s habitat has shrunk by half, most of it destroyed by peasants and loggers who cut down the bamboo or log trees that provide shade and moisture to bamboo which often dies after prolonged exposure to the sun. Only six forested "island habitats" are left in China and many conservationists fear the small isolated panda populations may suffer from inbreeding. Nature reserves protect only about half of the remaining panda habitat. One in three wild panda’s lives outside nature reserve borders.
One WWF official said that giant pandas could become extinct in one or two generations as rapid development in China divides its habitat into increasingly smaller patches, preventing the animals from roaming freely over a large range, The biggest concern is that if the habitat fragments too much males and females look to mate will not be able to find each other.
The construction of roads, railways and dams and the development of industrial areas and mines have also eaten away at the panda’s habitat. One of the big problems in areas where pandas reside is that both pandas and people prefer living in valleys than on the slopes of the mountains. The mixed groves of trees and bamboo in the valleys are often where pandas eat. They are also where villagers go to collect firewood.
The number of pandas at Wolong reserve in Sichuan dropped by half (from 145 to 72) in its first 11 years for existence, four times faster than before the reserve was established. The loss was due to loss of bamboo forest, caused in part by population pressures in turn caused by new arrivals to the area who hoped to make money from the tourist trade. Some of the panda's forest were chopped down to provide charcoal for making smoked pork, which was sold to tourists.
Hundreds of pandas have been killed by poachers. Conservationists were stunned in 1988 when the Chinese announced that they had recovered 146 panda pelts in recent years. Some pandas are killed by snares intended, not for them, but for musk deer whose glands secrete a valuable folk medicine and perfumes. In the 1980s most panda pelts were sold in Taiwan---and to a lesser degree in Japan and Hong Kong. [National Geographic Geographica, October 1992].
In the Qin Ling mountains in Shaanxi six pandas were lost to poachers in ten years. In 1983 the People's Daily reported that a panda with radio-collar was caught in steel trap and strangled to death by a man living near the Wolong reserve who took the carcass home and ate it. The man was imprisoned for two years.
Selling panda pelts and killing pandas is now a crime punishable by death, and at least five peasants have been executed. In 1990, two Sichuan men were publicly executed after they were found with four panda skins. The minimum sentence is 12 years.
In 2007 there were reports by state forestry officials of villagers being persuaded to hunt pandas and trade their pelts in southwestern Sichuan.
Pandas and the 2008 Earthquake in Sichuan
Much of the panda’s habitat was affected by the earthquake in Sichuan 2008. By some estimates an area where 80 percent of pandas live suffered some degree of destruction by the quake and 10 percent was destroyed.. In some places entire mountains were sheered off by landslides, river were blocked with debris and soil was washed away by floods. The landslides and floods continued for weeks after the quake.
The Sichuan earthquake devastated huge tracts of bamboo forest, causing pandas to face severe food shortages. According to WWF, the 8.0-magnitude earthquake affected 83 percent of the giant pandas' habitat in the region. It also badly damaged the Longxi Hongkou nature reserve and destroyed protection systems above 2,000 meters that took 30 years to put in place. Twenty-seven of Sichuan's 40-something giant panda nature reserves were hit.
The Wolong Center suffered serious damage during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Fourteen of the 32 panda houses were destroyed. Some were smashed by truck-size boulders. The main roads leading to the center were made unusable by landslides and severe road damage. The reserve was just 18 miles away from the earthquake’s epicenter in Wenchuan and located in narrow valley vulnerable to landslides. No tourists were injured. Five staff members were killed but none of them were at the center. Forty people were killed in the entire area.
Wolong Center Pandas and the Sichuan Earthquake
After the earthquake occurred the people at Wolong evacuated the tourists that were there and went to save the pandas. Some were trembling in the trees, Others were lying still, a clear sign they were traumatized. Each cub was carried out by bus to Wolong town and spent the night there with their keepers. The next day, after it was determined the center was safe, they were returned. The adults were initially but into cages and then moved to enclosures deemed safe from landslides.
One panda was crushed to death when boulders and debris caused her concrete enclosure to collapse. Another disappeared. One, whose enclosure was smashed, made a run for it and need 100 people to rescue her. On the traumatized pandas, one person at the center told the Los Angeles Times, “They went up the trees and wouldn’t come down.”
Another told the Washington Post, in the first days after the quake they were really sensitive to noise and were very nervous. “Our people have been trying to communicate by talking to them, touching them,” he said. “We are trying to lessen their stress.” The therapy seemed to work. Within a few weeks the pandas were eating normally and regained their playfulness.
Eight pandas from Wolong were brought to Beijing Zoo and featured before and during the Olympics. Collection boxes were set up to help raise funds to rebuild Wolong. Crowds of over 100,000 people showed on some weekend days to see the pandas.
The Sichuan earthquake devastated bamboo forests in the Wolong Reserve. Bamboo had to rationed at the research and breeding center. Pandas that normally produce 10 kilograms of feces a day produced only two kilograms.
Wolong Center After the Sichuan Earthquake
Wolong Center was closed for about a year. Geologists searched for a better place to put it and the 4,500 people that live in the reserve. Getting enough bamboo has always a problem but it became a really big problem after the earthquake. Trucking it in took nine hours as opposed to three hours before the quake.
Almost half of the money form an aid package from Hong Kong for the 2008 earthquake---almost U.S.$ 110 million---is being used to restore the panda reserve at Wolong. Much of the money is being used to build a 4½ kilometer road to the center.
In April 2009, China announced that it was building a new breeding center about 100 kilometers from the original Wolong site. The new site was chosen based on its favorable weather, water, environment and geology.
Efforts to Save Panda Habitats
Since the 1980s, the number of nature reserves where hunting, trapping and logging are banned has increased to 60 from 13. A logging ban in 1998 helped stop the decline in their numbers, but large-scale infrastructure construction and a devastating earthquake in May 2008 have damaged their food source and migration routes.
In 1994, the Chinese government approved a $100 million, 10 year plan that would double the number of panda reserves, find new jobs for timber workers who logged the reserves, relocate peasants and establish "green corridors" to link up breeding areas. Conservationists were pleased with the plan but some were worried it would be compromised by corruption and lack of financial accountability.
In the 1970s, more than 2.5 million acres was set aside for pandas. There are currently about 60 reserves for pandas up from 13 in the 1990s. Setting aside these reserves is credited with saving the panda. The World Wide Fund of Nature wants to expand existing panda reserves so that panda habitats are protected by buffer zones from human populations and have corridors that allow members of different population to mate to prevent inbreeding.
Laws have been passed forbidding the cutting of trees, farming, hunting and even walking in panda habitats. Bamboo forests are being planted, corridors are being created between their reserves and large blocks of undeveloped forests. Rewards equivalent to two years of salary for an average Chinese have been offered to anyone who helps a starving panda. The Wolong Center is involved in promoting bamboo growth.
In the Qin Ling mountains, where logging caused one group of 20 pandas to "split up and join other groups,” the Chinese government pledged $3 million to reorganize a local logging company into five separate factories and put 2,300 former loggers to work making paper products, biofertilizer and other goods. Thirty polluting factories in the Ya’an area, were pandas live, have been closed to help protect pandas.
Perhaps the thing that has helped pandas the most has been raising the level of awareness among members of the Chinese government and the Chinese public. China now sees panda protection as a matter of national pride. When 36-year-old Mei Mei, China’s oldest captive panda, died on in July 2005 at the Guilin City Zoo mourners formed long line to pay their last respects.
Problems Protecting Pandas
Despite the efforts to relocate them, a lot people, many of them Tibetans, Dong tribesmen and other minorities, remain living in panda territory. Those that live in and around the parks have no electricity and generally rely on firewood to heat their homes and cook their meals. The chopping down of trees stunts the growth of the bamboo that the pandas eat.
Finding new homes ofr the people that live in reserves is one of the biggest problems with creating a panda reserve. In the Wolong panda reserve the Chinese government attempted to relocate 4,000 villagers to new government-built housing. The villagers, most of them minorities, refused to move and continued to cut bamboo and timber for firewood.
It is estimated that it will cost about $80 million to pay loggers and peasant farmers to move out of areas inhabited by pandas. The Chinese government has only budgeted $13 million for the effort, the remainder it is hoped will be provided by international conservation groups.
A 1998 ban on commercial logging has stopped large-scale timber harvesting but illegal logging persists.
Captive Breeding Efforts
A panda at the Chengdu panda facility As of April 2006, more than 180 pandas had been bred in captivity. More than 120 pandas have been born at Wolong Nature Reserve between 1980 and 2007, with 45 of them born in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding had six pandas when it opened in 1987. It had 108 in 2011. Twelve cubs were born in September 2011.
Between 1963 and 2001, 210 pandas have been born in captivity in China and 20 overseas. Many died. Four zoos in the United States have worked closely with China to raise pandas. The first panda to be born and survive in the United States was born at the San Diego Zoo in August, 1999. As of March 2007, four pandas had been born at the San Diego Zoo.
Improved artificial insemination has improved the success rate of panda captive breeding. In 1980, scientists learned how to preserve male sperm by freezing it in liquid hydrogen. Later U.S. scientists provided Chinese scientists with technical knowledge of artificial insemination procedures. The success rate has improved further as scientists have learned more about when a female is ready to conceive and the number of captive pandas that can be used in artificial breeding have matured.
Scientists determine that females are receptive by monitoring the estrogen levels in their urine and taking vaginal cells and analyzing them to see how close ovulation is. After the female has been artificially inseminated, scientists don't know if she is pregnant until the embryo attaches itself to the uterus, which can take as long as four months.
When test show the female is ovulating, a male is given a chance to show his stuff. If nothing happens researchers anaesthetize him and use a technique called electro-ejaculation in which a probe is inserted into his rectum and an electrical charge causes ejaculation. The sperm is placed in catheter that is guided into place in the female’s uterus with a laparoscope (a tiny telescope with a fiber optic light often used in human medicine). Pandas have been bred with both fresh semen and frozen semen.
Difficulties with Captive Breeding
Conservationist and zoologists initially had little success breeding pandas in captivity. In the early years the failure rate was high and the survival rate of those that were born was low with 60 percent of the pandas born dying within the first month. Of the 144 pandas born in captivity before 1995, only 43 are still alive, 37 of them in China."
To increase the number of pandas, the Chinese government began offering a cash reward of $1,724 in 1992 for every panda breed in captivity. That may not sound like much money in the West but $1,724 was about five times the average salary of a worker in China at that time.
Only 10 percent of male pandas in captivity can mate. To increase the odds, researching at Wolong Research center put males in pens with females in heat, show them “pornographic” videos of mating pandas and exercise their rear legs so they have no problem standing up during mating. The porn videos are thought have helped one male mate successfully. Experiments with Viagra didn’t produce any promising results.
The boredom and stress of captive life can negatively affect reproductive behavior. Males are often not interested in sex or are so aggressive they pose a danger to fertile females. Females can be picky and 80 percent of males fail to respond appropriately to receptive females. "Because the world's captive community is so limited, finding a compatible mate can be like dating in a very small town," one scientist said. Even when both seem willing, the male is often unable to consummate the affair.
Typically, a female panda in heat is poked and prodded with a bamboo pole in the direction of the male she is supposed to mate with. The male responds by taking a whiff or her rear end and then retreats to a corner turning his back to the female, and munches on stalks of bamboo.
Pandas that have come in contact with humans have difficulty reproducing naturally and taking care of their young if they do give birth. Fewer than a third of captive panda’s have mated naturally. Mothers in captivity are often unable to properly take care of their young. Ling Ling, the female panda at the National Zoo in Washington, and her mate Hsing Hsing didn’t successfully mate for 10 years. She was pregnant twice and gave birth once but the cub didn't survive.
Captive breeding produces inbreeding, Scientists meet to work out the best matches among pandas with the most diverse DNA. Identification chips---with a information about pedigree, age and other basic data---have been implanted into captive panda’s to better monitor the animals and prevent inbreeding.
Some panda cubs have died because the were unable to get milk from their mothers and died of malnutrition. The Chinese hired Japanese researcher Toshi Watanabe, who invented a milking system for rats, to do the same for pandas. After five years---much of the time spent developing replicas of a panda mother’s nipples and a baby mouths using silicon---the panda milking machine was made. The milking machines are used at the panda breeding centers in Sichuan and have contributed to the increased number of pandas at the centers.
Captive Breeding Successes
Chinese scientists say that they have achieved an 84 percent success rate in the artificial breeding of pandas. As of late 2007, 128 of the 239 giant pandas in captivity were at Wolong center, the majority of which were bred in captivity. An effort has been made to breed pandas with the greatest genetic diversity possible to ensure the long term survival of the species.
In 2010, 31 cubs were produced in China from 38 births, both records at that time. The previous record was 25 successful live births in 2009. Twenty-five pandas were born and survived in 2005, including 16 at the Wolong center and three at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Center in Chengdu. Others were born at research centers and zoos in Japan and Washington D.C. Less than half that number were born in 2004. In 2006, there were 33 successful births, in 2007, 31, including a record 12 pairs of twins.
In the early days of panda captive breeding, many newborn panda’s died but recent studies on the care and feeding of pandas have dramatically improved their survival rate. Of the 16 baby pandas born in 2005 at Wolong’six single cubs, and five pairs of twins---all survived and are flourishing.
In August 2006, the heaviest panda born in captivity was born at the Wolong center. It weighed 218 grams. It took 34 hours for its mother to give birth, another record. The cub was born during a streak in which five pandas were born in two days. The others included two sets of twin panda sisters at the Chengdu Center .
In 2000, nine infants were born at Wolong and eight survived the crucial first weeks. In 1999, 14 pregnant females .were recorded at the Panda Research Center in Chengdu.
The first panda to be conceived using frozen sperm was born at Wolong in July 2009. The greatest benefit of this advancement is that sperm from pandas in zoos in San Diego, Mexico City and other places could be more easily used with animals in China and visa versa, reducing inbreeding. The methods had been tried many times before but failed. Improvements in the hawing technique are believed to be behind the success. In past only 30 percent of the sperms survived after being frozen with liquid nitrogen. This time 80 percent survived.
Tang Chunxiang, the chief veterinarian at the China Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda in Chengdu, told The Times: “Now our focus is to improve genetic quality, control the size of the panda population and ensure better natal and pre-natal care and improved upbringing...We will not purposely reduce the number of panda births, but we will only allow those that set a proper genetic quality to breed. Others will not e allowed to reproduce or will reproduce less.” [Source: Jane, Macartney, Times of London, January 2011]
Raising Captive Bred Pandas
The average cost of maintaining a panda, mainly food and medicine, at Wolong is about $5,000 a year. Staff that work with young pandas at the China Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda in Chengdu disguise themselves in panda costumes when they approach the animals. The facility in Chengdu disposes of 200 tons of panda dropping a year.
In captivity scientist often swap twins---with the favored cub being replaced with the rejected one and visa versa’so both cubs get the mother’s attention and milk for half the time.
Captive pandas get sick easily, often digestive tract disorders. Baby pandas must be handled frequently and rolled from side to side otherwise their intestines become flattened or distorted. Mother pandas constantly move the infants around to prevent this from happening. Young pandas often suffer from bloating when bamboo gets stuck in their digestive system. At Wolong bloated pandas are frequently rushed into the emergency room.
Pandas are generally docile and don’t move around much and are easy to control in captivity. Captive pandas generally live longer and become bigger and heavier than wild pandas. They are fed bamboo along with apples, carrots, bread and nutritional supplements,
Pandas at the Chengdu center produce a ton of droppings a month. The facility pays $770 a month to clean up the mess. Some of the dung is sterilized under 3000 degrees C heat and sold as an odor free souvenir with a Beijing Olympics panda mascots on the package.
Release of Captive Bred Pandas
The long term goal at Wolong is to boost wild panda numbers by releasing captive-bred animals into the wild. In April 2006, a captive-bred panda named Xiang Xiang was taken away form his pampered life at Wolong and plopped in the middle of a bamboo forest to fend for himself. The four-year-old male was the first captive-bred panda to be released in the wild. He was prepared in a 10-square-mile enclosed area and taught feeding and nesting skills. Before he was released his supply of bamboo was reduced to encourage him to forage on his own.
Some have doubts about the scheme or returning pandas to the wild. A few months after he was released scientists found that Xiang Xiang’s radio collar wasn’t working. They tracked him down and found he had been injured in a fight with another male presumably over territory. He was patched up and returned to the forest. A few weeks later Xiang Xiang disappeared. It is thought he had another encounter with a male and fell while trying to climb a tree to escape and broke his leg. Efforts to find him turned up empty. Huang Yan, vice-director research at Wolong told The Times: “Xiang Xiang’s training did not start until he was two and he had already come to depend a lot on humans. The experience we gained from Xiang Xiang is that the training should begin as early as possible.
Chinese scientist have not given up. As of late 2007, four other pandas were being prepared for release into the wild. According to the plan the next panda to be released will be a pregnant female, who her keepers say will be less of a threat to wild male pandas and better prepared than Xiang Xiang to fend for herself.
Wolong is creating a 75-acre enclosure where pandas will live for several years as a sort of halfway house before being released to the wild. The plan is for only lone females or male-female pairs to be released to avoid conflicts with dominant males.
There has been some discussion of using police dogs to teach the pandas fighting skills. Already four pandas at Woolong live with a specially-trained police dog or other animals, with the idea that the pandas would learn how to protect themselves by observing the dog and other animals, increasing their chances of survival in the wild.
The "Panda Valley" project aims to introduce pandas born in captivity into the wild using a strategy that hasn’t been tried before with pandas. The under-construction project, about a two-hour drive from the Chengdu base, will feature three zones that effectively act as buffers between man and the wild, with the pandas rotating between them and acclimatizing to reduced human contact. The zones will be completed in 2015, and the first pandas relocated there the following year, with a goal of setting them free within 10-20 years. A leader of the project said, "We have to be very, very careful...Many others have tried this and failed."
Pandas Valley Training Center
Leo Lewis wrote in The Times, “Six giant pandas, born and raised in captivity, padded out of their cages for the first time yesterday to confront the bewildering terrors of nature: 50 television cameras, a phalanx of Chinese officials, a grinning basketball star and a huge electric fence. [Source: Leo Lewis, The Times, January 12, 2012]
The young pandas, two male and four female, began their training program in the semi-wild environment of Panda Valley with predictable anxiety. One climbed a log bridge strung between two manicured trees, another prodded at a bale of bamboo. A third lolloped into the perimeter trench and admired the concrete wall separating him from the dangers of the countryside of southwestern Sichuan province. If any of the animals become too vexed by all that natural savagery, explained one panda researcher, they can always head back indoors.
The experiment has been billed as the boldest attempt yet to introduce pandas bred in captivity to the wild. However, it could be more than a decade before Xingrong, Qiqi, Zhizhi and other members of the panda sextet are judged independent enough to leave their 20 hectare, minutely controlled enclosure.
The thinking behind the latest experiment is that, very gradually, life in the enclosure that is Panda Valley should come to mimic an actual valley of wild pandas. The six bears will be introduced to the idea of foraging, defending themselves from the dangers of the wild and mating.
The six pioneer pandas, aged between 2 and 4, were selected from 108 bred in the Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base. If their release is successful, researchers plan to repeat the process on a larger scale. The small enclosures will be expanded to train 30 pandas at a time with the aim of releasing more than 100 into the wild by 2060.
Little of the painstaking training ahead of the six pandas was mentioned yesterday as the government of Chengdu laid on a spectacular gala to celebrate their "release into the wilderness". As eight golden cannon blasted arcs of confetti into the morning sky, the country's greatest sporting celebrity, Yao Ming, was on hand to offer his encouragement.
"I think it is a really good idea to release pandas into the wild," he said. "Just like humans need to have a personality, pandas should also have a full life as animals in the real world. Animals not living in nature are not real animals but pets." The 228cm retired basketball star was later pictured with his wife petting two baby pandas. Despite the insistence that the 300 million yuan ($46 million) Panda Valley project is not a zoo, Chengdu authorities appeared eager to exploit the black and white national treasures. Tourist paths and ornamental streams already meander around the pandas' "semi-wild" enclosures and the centre will include observation stations, an "experience village" for schoolchildren and a cinema.
Cloned Pandas, Genome Mapping and the Ignoble Prize
Scientists in China say that cloning pandas is very close to reality. The Fuzhou Panda Research Center is working on a panda cloning project and have said they are one only step away from successfully cloning pandas. The first panda embryo using the ovum of a different species, a rabbit, was created in 1998. In the early 2000s, an embryo was successfully implanted into the uterus of another species, a cat. The only obstacle they need to overcome is having the embryo develop into a fetus that stays alive long enough to be born.
Cloning pandas with bears as surrogate mothers is being investigated. Researchers have said the technique that holds the most promise is fusing panda egg cells with black bear cells and raising the embryo in a black bear surrogate mother. The same or similar technology used to clone a gaur could be used on pandas (See Asian Animals). Some say everything possible should be done to save the pandas. Critics claim that cloning reduces the genetic pool of pandas and would make them vulnerable to disease.
In the late 2000s, scientists in China with the help of scientists from the United States, Britain, Denmark and Canada mapped the genome of the giant panda by studying the DNA of three-year old female named Jing Jing. Among the things that scientists figured out was that pandas are definitely related to bears not raccoons. One of the hopes of the research is that scientists can use the information to find ways to make it easier for pandas to mate.
In 2009, Chinese and Japanese researchers were awarded an Ignoble Prize by a Harvard-based humor magazine for developing a method to cut kitchen refuge by using bacteria derived from the feces of giant pandas.
The first organized census of pandas in the 1970s counted about 2,500 in the wild. In the 1980s, the count dropped to 1,114. The conducted in 2000-'01, showed just 1,596 pandas living in the wild in China. Since then, China's breakneck growth and construction of roads, railroads and utility lines have driven the panda population into isolated mountain enclaves, where they are vulnerable to inbreeding and starvation. A 2006 survey by the Chinese Academy of Sciences found 66 pandas in the Wanglang reserve in Sichuan province, double an earlier estimate.
Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, In 2012 more than 100 people fanned out “across 12,000 square miles of treacherous mountain passes in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces, stalking the giant panda or its droppings... Panda droppings are pale green and look a little like bundles of twigs. When the team finds them, a junior researcher accompanying Dai does a maneuver that any U.S. dog owner would recognize, grabbing it with his hand inside a plastic bag that he then turns inside out and ties shut. With a handheld GPS device, the team also records the precise locations where excrement is found. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, December 7, 2011]
Each panda's droppings are a signature, varying according to how thoroughly the animal chomps the bamboo. Back at the lab, researchers extract and measure the stalks of bamboo. By studying the samples and their locations, the scientists can get a rough idea of how many pandas are in a particular area. For this census, they will also conduct DNA analysis of the poop.
"It's much harder to do a census of pandas than of people. With a human census, people talk to people. You have no other way of communicating with the pandas," says Hong Mingsheng, one of the researchers.
Sarah Bexell, director of conservation research at the Chengdu Research Base, where pandas are bred in captivity for reintroduction into the wild, says this type of census is "at best a guesstimate" and that she doubts that the numbers are increasing. "There is no way it could have gone up," says Bexell, who is also a research scholar at the University of Denver. "The Chinese government is trying so terribly hard to protect their national treasure, but until humans globally get our population under control and our consumption habits under control, it's impossible to save wildlife." She's not optimistic about the future of the panda and says that even captive breeding facilities are "just a game, waylaying the reality."
Looking for Pandas in the Wild
Reporting from Sanhe, China, Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “If pandas weren't so darn cute, we wouldn't be up in the clouds at the edge of a mountain ravine slick with moss and mud, clinging for life to shoots of bamboo. And get this: There is almost zero chance that we'll actually see a panda. We keep our eyes on the ground, not just to keep from falling, but because the best we can hope for is to discover panda droppings (and even the chances of that aren't so hot). [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, December 7, 2011]
"To be honest, I've been working in these mountains for 20 years and I've never seen a panda in the wild," says Dai Bo, 43, a wildlife biologist with China's Forestry Ministry who's wearing a camouflage jacket and hiking boots and has a zoom-lens Canon around his neck, just in case.
Dai is leading a six-person team through the fog-shrouded mountains of Sichuan province to conduct the first census in a decade of China's endangered panda population. Although Dai's specialty is predatory birds, all wildlife researchers are being pressed into service whether they love pandas or not, and one does sense a certain panda fatigue. "If you're in Sichuan province, you've got to study pandas," Dai says with resignation.
On a recent day, a few census workers convene 120 miles southwest of Chengdu in Sanhe, a mountain village where corn hangs drying from the rafters of wooden houses and women carry baskets of mountain herbs on their backs. After a night in an unheated guesthouse with concrete floors, the workers divide into groups. Dai's team takes off in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, bouncing down a dirt road to the base of a mountain called Daping, part of the Xiangling range.
A 72-year-old villager, a stocky man carrying a sickle to cut through the underbrush, serves as a guide. He scrambles uphill like a goat, pausing from time to time to roll and smoke a cigarette, looking down with contempt at the scientists and journalists laboring to catch up. Underfoot, the ground is dense with moldering wood and moss. The slopes are lush with firs, cedars, palms and ficus and plenty of good things to eat: wild kiwis, hazelnuts and fire berries from the pyracantha bush. But pandas prefer bamboo, which they consume in copious quantities.
On Daping mountain, the bamboo grows as thick as a man's thumb and is closely spaced like the bars of a cage. The guide swings his sickle to clear a path, but it's no use: Runners wrap around our feet and prickly branches grab at our hair. "The bamboo is too dense here. No good for big animals," says the villager, Yang Pingfang.
It turns out to be a frustrating day. In more than nine hours of hiking, the team finds no panda droppings, only the excrement of a black bear, which looks like spilled coffee grounds. "Anybody who has experienced our work knows it is not that glamorous. It is sometimes boring and lonely," says junior researcher Yang Yi, 30, who estimates he will cover nearly 900 miles over the next year for the panda census.
At nightfall, waiting for the jeep to pick them up, the scientists chat with villagers, who during the day had said they seldom see pandas in the wild. Their stories seem to grow more fanciful with the consumption of baijiu, the strong white alcohol favored in the Chinese countryside. "Oh yes, I saw a panda sitting in a tree. It fell down right in front of me," says Feng Quanwu, 50. "We see pandas more often now, so we think there must be more than in the 1980s."
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated December 2012