In Captivity

Every Chinese and American participant had spent four intensive days in this Chengdu meeting room hearing the many problems encountered in day-to-day (and year-to-year) management of giant pandas ex situ - sexual incompatibilities, behavioural aggression, questionable nutrition, too few breeding males, females that mated but failed to produce offspring, neonatal deaths, poor growing animals, health issues in all age classes, pandas with unknown paternity, inadequate infrastructure (exhibits, enclosures, veterinary hospitals and research laboratories) and the need for more technology transfer, from veterinary medicine to nutrition to reproductive monitoring and the use of assisted breeding.

Despite the workshop's intensive efforts, the overall task of getting this animal population organised now seemed almost overwhelming. It was beginning to settle upon everyone (Chinese and CBSG included) that it would be impossible to solve any of these challenges immediately. If anything, the picture was more complicated because there was an entire menu of potential culprits contributing to the nonviability of the ex situ giant panda population in China.

As the workshop began to wind down, two conclusions were drawn. First, it would be impossible to develop any sort of genetic management plan in the near future. But the good news was that, despite the long list of concerns articulated by the participants, there were 104 giant pandas in captivity in China in 1996, a population that held significant amounts of genetic diversity. This was a huge advantage as there were plenty of animals to conduct the necessary studies to solve the problems, and without taking more animals from the wild. The second conclusion emanated from the first - before being genetically managed, the population had to be understood, to be studied intensively by collecting new biological information, especially pertaining to health and reproductive status. The target was identifying the factor(s) that were limiting reproductive success followed, of course, by implementing remediation.

CBSG presented an idea to the Chinese participants. A Biomedical Survey approach had been used effectively across a diverse array of American zoos to identify factors that were contributing to reproductive inefficiency and health concerns in the cheetah. Could this strategy be considered for the giant panda? If so, then it would be necessary to form an international partnership involving multidisciplinary teams that, in turn, would require Chinese holding institutions to also work together. Everyone, sensing a huge opportunity, immediately embraced the idea. The only Chinese caveat was an insistence that CBSG be willing to serve as the organising institution; its neutrality was seen as a prerequisite to success.

The Chengdu workshop ended on a high note - the participants had identified the magnitude of the challenge, concluded that it was exponentially bigger than any single person or institution and had decided unanimously that the next step would depend on a partnership that would scientifically target the factors limiting captive breeding success.

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