Giant Pandas In The Western World

The giant panda was virtually unknown outside China until the 1800s when the declining Qing Dynasty opened China to western trade. The species was first described in the western world by the missionary naturalist and explorer Pere Armand David who described a giant panda specimen shot by Chinese hunters in Baoxin County, Sichuan Province in 1869 (Hu & Qiu, 1990). It was not until 1916 that the first westerner, Hugo Weigold, saw a live giant panda, and then it was another 14 years until the next sighting was reported. In the years following its discovery, killing of giant pandas became a goal of western museum collectors and hunters, beginning with Kermit and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr, sons of Teddy Roosevelt, who shot a specimen on an expedition sponsored by the Chicago Field Museum (Sheldon, 1975).

The first live giant panda was exported to the USA by Ruth Harkness, widow of the wealthy adventurer William Harkness, who 'rescued' a cub in Sichuan Province. In late 1936, after trouble with customs, Mrs Harkness took the cub out of China with a customs voucher that said 'one dog, $20.00' (Sheldon, 1975; Schaller et al, 1985). This animal, Su Lin, had been destined for the New York Zoological Society, but the zoo refused it because of perceived health problems (Schaller et al., 1985). The National Zoological Park in Washington, DC also declined to accept it, due to a rather extraordinary asking price (Lumpkin & Seidensticker, 2002). After a whirlwind tour of San Francisco, Chicago and New York, Su Lin ended up at Chicago's Brookfield Zoo, where she died of pneumonia in April 1938. The 'panda-mania' spawned by Harkness and others' 'bring 'em back alive' approach led to the export of at least 16 giant pandas to western zoos over the next 15 years. Without readily available fresh bamboo or husbandry expertise, western zoos were ill-equipped to care for these animals, and none survived beyond 10 years of age.

The further exportation of giant pandas from China stopped with the Cultural Revolution and the formation of the People's Republic of China in 1949. A handful of animals were sent to zoos in Europe and North Korea. Then, the re-initiation of diplomatic relations between China and the USA (spearheaded by Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon) resulted in a 1972 gift of two giant pandas to the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park. This was followed by similar state gifts to Japan, France, the UK, Mexico, Spain and Germany. Only three of these pairs produced surviving young. The pairs in Japan and Mexico still have surviving offspring. The pair in Spain had two cubs; one survived for 4 years, but all offspring are now deceased.

Species charisma, relentless media coverage and parallel explosions in visitation at holding zoos in the west provoked the 'rent-a-panda' programme of the 1980s. This involved short-term loans from only weeks to a few months duration in exchange for substantial amounts of cash. Because these activities had no clear benefits for the species, it did not take long to attract the attention of conservationists as well as the USA Government which quickly saw the programme as strictly exploitative. The giant panda was placed on the USA Endangered Species List in 1984, which was followed by an all-out importation ban in 1988. Through a loophole, the Columbus Zoo arranged a short-term loan of giant pandas in 1992. This controversial loan set the stage for the future, in that funds raised as a result of the loan were used to establish new reserves in wild panda ranges in China. To buy time, the US Fish and Wildlife Service enacted a moratorium on any further giant panda importations. The goal was to formulate a policy ensuring that any further trade in giant pandas would not be detrimental to the species in nature. In fact, the most important part of the guidelines mandated that any loan be connected to enhancement of conservation of giant pandas in nature and not linked to commercial gain.

The result was that zoos in the USA were forced to develop highly organised scientific and management plans before being considered as candidates for importing giant pandas from China. There were also substantial financial costs to each loan, generally about $1 million annually for the loan plus additional costs to support the home institution's research and training programmes in the USA as well as in China (see Chapter 22). Even given these challenges, to date four institutions in the USA currently maintain giant pandas, including the San Diego Zoo (beginning 1998), Zoo Atlanta (1999), the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park (2002) and Memphis Zoo (2003). The San Diego Zoo also achieved the first milestone in North America, the production of a surviving cub by AI (Hua Mei, studbook number 487, born in 1999) who was subsequently returned to China and reproduced in 2004. Most recently (July 2005), the National Zoo produced a cub (Tai Shan, SB 595) by AI which survives at the time of writing.

CURRENT STATUS OF THE WORLD'S EX SITU GIANT PANDA

POPULATION, INCLUDING THREATS

The notion of 'conservation breeding' of giant pandas is not new - the Chinese have long recognised this need and produced the first cub in captivity almost 40 years ago. Births in Mexico, Japan and the USA (often following complicated behavioural and reproductive monitoring as well as sophisticated assisted breeding technologies) also demonstrate global interest and dedication to propagating the species. But throughout history, what is apparent and common to all giant panda-holding institutions is sporadic, inconsistent success at reproduction followed by survival to adulthood. Lu and colleagues (2000) correctly pointed out some of the problems that have plagued panda-breeding programmes, including the enormous amount of funds expended on captive breeding; the high failure rate of reproduction (by 1997, 74% of adults had not bred); and the lack of appropriate ex situ environments for this specialised species.

From our overview here, it is probably apparent that nothing is simple about giant panda conservation, biology or politics. It is a species under enormous pressure by people, and yet it relies on people to ensure its ultimate survival. Nonetheless, progress is being made. In 1996, when the activities associated with this book began, there were about 124 giant pandas living in captivity worldwide. Today, there are more than 160 living individuals (Xie & Gipps, 2003) with the majority under the management authority of the Chinese Ministry of Construction and its Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens. A counterpart Chinese agency, the State Forestry Administration, manages all pandas in the wild plus a captive population at its China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda in the Wolong Nature Reserve and a more recent collection in Ya'an (Ya'an Bifengxia Base of China Conservation and Research Centre for Giant Pandas). There now are approximately 29 pandas living in zoos in North America, Europe, Japan and Thailand.

Despite the charisma, controversies, money and politics swirling around the species, improvements in captive management are being made. This is largely for two reasons: the application of an integrative, multidisciplinary scientific approach (see Chapter 2) and the development of partnerships, including training and the emergence of trusting relationships, across often complex cultural and agency boundaries (see Chapter 22). Before 1996, the primary threats to a sustainable captive panda population were lack of knowledge and no coordinated way to address routine problems encountered in management and husbandry. In fact, the challenges had never been clearly defined, and zoo managers encountering the same health, behavioural, genetic and reproductive problems rarely cooperated scientifically. However, now (as hopefully will become clear throughout this book) there is much new information on the specific factors that limit giant panda reproduction and survival in captivity. Furthermore, there have been many positive efforts to resolve issues by applying the scientific method. However, this in turn requires the consistent provision of adequate resources by governmental and non-governmental agencies and partnering organisations. Training the next generation of scientists is also imperative. And all of this can be accomplished because of the intense international interest in exhibiting the species, which can be translated into cooperation, financial support and more basic and applied research (Zheng et al., 1997).

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