Conserving biodiversity is a daunting and complex task. Perhaps no species presents a greater challenge than the giant panda - one of the most recognized and threatened animals on the planet. Its difficult-to-traverse, mountainous habitat in China makes quantifying population numbers in the wild exceedingly difficult. Despite a recent survey suggesting that the wild population may be growing, there is no disagreement that the primary threat is severely fragmented habitat. There now are more than 40 isolated populations, many too small or containing too few giant pandas to be demographically and genetically viable for much longer.
Seminal studies have been conducted on wild giant panda ecology by pioneers such as Wenshi Pan, Zhi Lu and George Schaller. However, we still have only touched on the full complement of information necessary for integrated and robust conservation initiatives. One threat to overall giant panda conservation is simply the lack of broad-based knowledge about its biology. This is particularly important for such an evolutionarily distinct species. Its biological systems are unconventional: distinctive from bears, but a derivative of the ursine lineage; a bear-like, monogastric animal that largely survives on grass (bamboo); and a species that has somehow survived to modern times despite an extraordinarily short (three-day) window of sexual receptivity for the female. Surely, a more detailed understanding of such phenomena is critical, both from a scholarly perspective as well as to provide data that can inform wise management decisions. This requires coordination and collaboration among numerous stakeholder groups, including governments, academia, conservation organisations, zoos and breeding centres and local communities.
In addition to the estimated 1500 giant pandas now thought to inhabit the wild, a second population also exists - in Chinese zoos and breeding centres. This population, accessible to the public and to scientists, represents a valuable resource for answering many of the research questions that, for various reasons, cannot be addressed in the wild. Maintaining the captive population should never be viewed as a substitute for conserving giant pandas and their wild habitat. Nevertheless, data gleaned from studies in this environment can help to round out the available information that will contribute to informed decision-making as comprehensive management and recovery plans are developed.
Conservation breeding of giant pandas in China is a fascinating story. From a futile beginning only a few decades ago, the Chinese have made remarkable progress in developing a healthy population of giant pandas that not only provides a valuable research resource but also an insurance policy against extinction. Many of the steps forward have been made by the Chinese themselves, but advancements accelerated even more quickly with a request for advice from the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens to the IUCN/SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group. The result was a stakeholder workshop followed by a unique Biomedical Survey - a multidisciplinary, cross-cultural effort that started as an experiment and blossomed into a relationship that has generated massive new information on the giant panda, most of which is summarised in this book. This project produced a host of new research questions, partnerships and capacity building initiatives. Additionally, data generated from this project have taken giant panda management in new directions, from enhancing reproduction in previously infertile individuals, to developing a global cooperative breeding programme to maintain genetic diversity.
This book is the first-ever compendium on the biology and management of giant pandas, and provides a summary of contemporary scientific information derived from studying more than 60 giant pandas living in zoos and breeding centres in China. It adds data to our fragmented knowledge concerning giant panda biology, including health issues, behaviour, nutrition, reproductive physiology/endocrinology, assisted breeding, early development and social competence, behavioural enrichment and medical and genetic management.
As importantly, these new data have been gleaned from a multi-institutional, multidisciplinary approach involving partnerships and coordinated teams of western and Chinese scientists. In addition to the scientific data presented, this text tells an appealing story of partnerships and collaboration, describing how people from diverse cultures worked hand-in-hand to resolve the health and reproductive problems facing giant pandas living in Chinese zoos and breeding centres. Each chapter also describes what we do not yet know while offering explicit recommendations for future studies. I heartily concur with the conclusion of virtually all authors that the highest priority is to continue to build capacity, generating a cadre of young, enthusiastic scientists prepared to tackle the difficult issues facing the rich biodiversity of China (far beyond giant pandas). Extending this capacity, most of all, is the legacy of this ground-breaking endeavour.
Russell A. Mittermeier
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