“Breeding breakthrough” alone will not save the giant panda

The BBC’s Science and Environment pages are currently carrying a story about a breakthrough in the breeding of giant pandas in China. Presumably this is part of an advertising push for a panda documentary that will air on BBC 2 tomorrow night (Panda Makers, BBC2, 8pm on Tuesday 07/12/10), but it reports the news that Chinese conservationists have reached their target of successfully raising 300 cubs in captivity, reportedly creating for the first time a viable breeding population.

I was in China this summer, and I spent four weeks at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda at Bifengxia, Sichuan Province, volunteering as a keeper thanks to the UK organisation Frontier. If you look closely at my picture in the sidebar to the right, you can see one of the pandas in the enclosure behind me.

Spending so long on the panda base gave me the opportunity to assess panda conservation efforts. Breeding has been the single focus of panda conservationists for the past few years, presumably in pursuit of this target of theirs. The historical problems with getting pandas to breed – female apathy towards mating, a frustratingly long reproductive cycle and so on – still exist, but captive panda numbers have nonetheless literally exploded in recent years.

Mei Sheng was born in San Diego and later moved to Bifengxia

During my time at Bifengxia, virtually all of the adult female pandas on the base were pregnant, suspected to be pregnant, or recent mothers. The reason for this is, of course, the use of artificial insemination techniques, which may increase the numbers of panda cubs born each year but do nothing for the long-term future of the species.

Perhaps the most dangerous part of Bifengxia’s modus operandi is its dual purpose as both a conservation centre and a tourist attraction. In my role as a volunteer keeper, one of my duties was to feed the bears – by hand. Visitors can make a “donation” to the centre – sometimes of the order of hundreds of pounds – to have a photograph with or “play” with a panda cub. The result of this extensive human contact is that the pandas have become incredibly domesticated, to the extent that natural behaviours such as foraging and territoriality are “forgotten.”

An example of the reality of all this came from what I am told is the only attempt, so far, to release a captive panda into the wild. The individual in question, a male, survived only a handful of hours before being killed by a wild male, into whose territory he had encroached.

Everyone loves baby pandas, but is it really right for them to have so much human contact?

The BBC article suggests that the next step in the panda conservation programme is to start wild reintroductions. As well as the problems with reversing the trend of increasing domestication, conservationists have also to deal with the fact that there may not be much space for the reintroductions to happen. Already the modern range of the giant panda is fragmented into distinct sub-populations with no overlap; though steps have been taken to reduce deforestation in their natural habitats, the damage has in many places already been done.

Having a large range is of incredible importance for wild giant pandas because bamboo has an irritating habit of flowering and dying at irregular intervals (every 25 years or so). Worse, all of the bamboo in a given area will flower and die at the same time – leaving pandas without a food source, unless they can move to another area. Their ability to do so is now constrained by widespread deforestation.

Unfortunately, forest conservation programmes don’t bring in the tourist dollars in the same way as baby pandas do. The somewhat less glamorous, but no less important, process of keeping wild panda habitats viable has been neglected over the years, and I wonder whether the lofty ideals of the optimistic researchers cited in the BBC report can really be reconciled with the reality that faces them in the mountains and forests of Sichuan.

My experience at Bifengxia taught me that while captive breeding is necessary for the continued survival of the giant panda, it is by no means sufficient. Steps need to be taken to properly prepare captive pandas for reintroduction, and to ensure that they have a habitat where they can be released. I’ll be watching the BBC documentary to see how, or whether, they have addressed these issues. Let me know what you think.

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