You are here:   Home/ Development News/ Environment

Giant pandas going wild

China Daily, May 4, 2014 Adjust font size:

Wan Yongqing, a panda lover from Beijing, made a special trip to the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Ya'an, Sichuan, in early April to see the cuddly bears.

Giant pandas going wild

Giant pandas going wild 

"Since my childhood, I have been told that pandas are an endangered species. I did not expect to see lots and lots of pandas," the sturdy middle-aged man said.

Wan owes his joy to the painstaking work of the center's researchers over 15 years to solve the three main problems in breeding pandas in captivity - estrus, mating and nursing. Through those efforts, the center was able to rescue the animals from the brink of extinction and build up the number of captive pandas in the center from a mere 10 to 187.

"It used to be difficult for captive pandas to become ruttish and mate, and for their cubs to survive. From 1992 to 2006, our researchers solved all three difficulties," said the center's chief, Zhang Hemin, who has studied the bears since 1983.

In 1980, an agreement between the World Wide Fund and the Chinese government led to the establishment of the center in the Wolong National Natural Reserve in Wenchuan county, Sichuan. Completed in 1983, the center - now the world's largest panda conservation and research organization - is committed to the breeding and rearing of captive pandas as well as to disease control, scientific research, wild panda rescue, the reintroduction of captive pandas to the wild, international cooperation and public education.

At the beginning, researchers did not have a correct understanding of the habits of pandas. Thinking the animals preferred a solitary life, researchers kept each panda isolated in a tiny den and fed it only bamboo. "Pandas in that environment felt depressed and had difficulty in becoming ruttish," Zhang said.

In the course of studies initiated in 1992, researchers provided captive pandas with more opportunities to communicate socially with each other and to play. For example, male and female pandas were swapped into the dens of the opposite sex so that each would know the smell of the other.

"We also showed sexually mature pandas videos of their peers having sex, which they could learn in the wild but not in captivity," Zhang said.

In the wild, pandas eat bamboo. They seek out the best plants - the ones that receive adequate sunshine and which provide the best nutrition. The center needed a way to encourage the daily hunt, as well to provide the required nutritional value.

"Since we could not choose the bamboo for captive pandas, we created a biscuit rich in trace elements and vitamins for them," he said.

Wild pandas stay active for hours each day. To emulate their natural environment, researchers tried putting the biscuits in places the pandas could not find easily, aiming to get them to move around. Some unorthodox approaches were also tried.

"To make them play, we froze fruits before giving them to the pandas. They had to play with the fruits until they thawed if they wanted to eat," Zhang said.

It the past, many newborn panda cubs died because of a quirk bred by nature. While 50 percent of newborns are twins, a mother typically chooses to care for only one. "In the wild, a mother panda first tries to care for both babies. But several hours later, she realizes she can't. If she tried to support both, both would die. So the mothers will desert one baby even if it cries," Zhang said.

Initially, researchers did not know how to handle the abandonment problem. And the death rate was high. They settled on a course that was part philanthropy and part trickery. They would take away the deserted baby and feed it milk. Then they would switch it with the favored cub from time to time. In this way, the mother unwittingly supported both.

"Researchers also emulated the mother panda in other ways. For example, the mother would lick different parts of the newborn cub, including its anus to get its droppings out. Researchers used a cotton stick to touch the deserted cub and to get the droppings out. This effort ensured the cubs' survival," Zhang said.

With the three primary obstacles hindering the breeding of captive pandas now overcome, the center has been able to develop a self-sustaining and growing panda population.

It is now home to 187 captive pandas out of a world total of 376, according to Zhang.

With the largest captive panda population in the world, the center no longer captures wild pandas for research purposes. Instead, it does the reverse, sending captive pandas into the wild with the aim of enlarging the natural panda population.

Tao Tao, a 2-year-old male panda from the center, was released into the wild in the Liziping Nature Reserve in Shimian county, Sichuan, in October 2012. He was discovered in a tree more than 3,000 meters above sea level on Oct 30, 2013.

A veterinarian, who was part of a team of researchers, tranquilized the frightened bear with a rifle dart, and Tao Tao fell into a net. A blood test showed the panda was in good health, said Yang Zhisong, an associate professor of zoology at China West Normal University in Nanchong, Sichuan, which contributed to the team.

Tao Tao weighed 42 kg when he was released in 2012. When he was found a year later, he had gained at least 10 kg, Yang said.

Sichuan is home to more than 80 percent of the world's wild pandas. The rest are in Gansu and Shaanxi provinces. Pandas survive solely in six mountain ranges within Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu, in habitat measuring about 23,000 square kilometers. They inhabit the Qinling, Minshan, Qionglai, Daxiangling, Xiaoxiangling and Liangshan mountains.

The Chinese government has built 64 nature reserves in the provinces that cover 60 percent of the natural habitat of pandas and 70 percent of wild pandas, according to Liu Yawen, deputy director of the Department of Wildlife Conservation and Nature Reserve Management in the State Forestry Administration.

1   2    

Bookmark and Share

Related News & Photos