Partnerships and capacity building for securing giant pandas ex situ and in situ how zoos are contributing to conservation

david e. wildt, xiaoping lu, mabel lam, zhihe zhang, susie ems introduction

The new information in this book is largely the product of a series of successful cross-cultural and biological experiments - that is, people with diverse backgrounds and skills working together over time to create scholarly information, which is already being used to enhance giant panda management. Much of the progress is the result of personal relationships that developed during the course of the Survey, which, in turn, provided some valuable lessons about working together in China. Among these is the importance of developing respectful, collegial partnerships. This does not mean a one-time meeting or research study but rather long-lasting relationships that are sustained over many years. This obviously requires substantial investments of time and money, and fierce commitments by all parties. In China, this also means the need for frequent face-to-face interaction.

Remarkably, all of this has transpired to benefit giant pandas, both ex situ and in situ. While this chapter briefly reviews why success occurred, its main purpose is to share new information about the larger impacts of these relationships. In particular, we examine how partnerships involving giant pandas are addressing one of China's most

Giant Pandas: Biology, Veterinary Medicine and Management, ed. David E. Wildt, Anju Zhang, Hemin Zhang, Donald L. Janssen and Susie Ellis. Published by Cambridge University Press. # Cambridge University Press 2006.

frequently identified needs - capacity building, thereby creating the next generation of skilled biologists and managers devoted to conserving Chinese wildlife and their habitats. Interestingly, zoos are a major force taking many of these steps forward.


There are three elements responsible for the significant increase in knowledge about giant panda biology, as follows.

The charisma and uniqueness of the species

As millions of visitors clamour to see giant pandas in zoos, scientists also are drawn to this special creature, but for different reasons. They are interested in its oddities of feature - a somewhat bear-like animal with fascinating morphological adaptations, including a functional opposable 'thumb', the ability to sit upright on its hindquarters for hours and its vocal bleats (rather than growls or roars). Taxonomists are intrigued by molecular data that prove a distinct relationship to the bear lineage, even though the giant panda's chromosomes (of which there are 21 pairs) more closely resemble that of the red panda (22 pairs) than most other ursids (37 pairs) (O'Brien, 1987). Nutritionists are mesmerised by its capacity to survive virtually on a grass (bamboo) but with the gastrointestinal tract of a nonruminant. Physiologists are perplexed by a reproductive strategy wherein the female is sexually receptive for less than one per cent of the year (one three-day period) followed by frequent twin production where one of the helpless neo-nates invariably dies due to maternal neglect. Most of all, many of us are intrigued by the question: can such a highly specialised species, which diverged from conventional bears 15 to 25 million years ago, survive in environments and contemporary times undergoing such radical change? All these mysteries attract significant scientific interest and expertise.

The development of relationships without borders

As recently as the mid 1990s, virtually all on-the-ground giant panda efforts were unlinked, especially in terms of collaboration and communication. The milieu was one of rivalry and secrecy rather than cooperation for a common good. Probably the most important contribution of the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group (CBSG) in China was in demonstrating the value of open communication. The 1996 masterplanning meeting (see Chapter 2) was a milestone in catalysing relationship building. The Chinese who faced the same challenges with giant pandas began talking and then working together, including extending more invitations to western scientists to collaborate. Institutional competition did not disappear, of course, but at least it existed in a healthier and more open atmosphere. CBSG's inherent philosophy of not swamping workshops with western 'experts' or telling the Chinese how to think or what to do was essential. Open working groups and frank discussions helped the participants bond and led to developing realistic expectations and recommendations for action. Then, however, everyone realised that the many identified priorities could not be addressed without significant internal and external partnerships. The resulting Biomedical Survey as a concept was a pledge to work together. Its successful completion demonstrated a remarkable commitment to circumvent institutional and disciplinary chauvinism to solve real problems. And all of this was carried out in a manner consistent with CBSG's emphasis on the power of science, through hypothesis testing, studying, learning and applying new knowledge to improve giant panda management, health and reproduction. This was possible only by the voluntary dismantling of many historical barriers followed by boldly working together across institutions, disciplines and cultures.

Money, specifically associated with giant panda loans to zoos outside China

The information in this book did not simply appear as the result of diligent scientific inquiry. It required significant financial investments by all parties. As described in Chapter 1, almost all giant pandas now living ex situ in zoos in the USA, Europe and Asia are linked to a loan process that provides animals in exchange for money, most of which is destined for supporting pandas in nature. Nowhere are the restrictions tighter than in the USA where zoos interested in exhibiting this species must comply with a strict US Fish and Wildlife Service import policy. In the USA, a host institution that displays a pair of giant pandas currently pays a fee of at least $1 million annually to one or two Chinese agency partners. The US Fish and Wildlife Service then works with this zoo and the appropriate Chinese agency to ensure that these funds are used to

'enhance' the survival of this species in the wild. This complex process includes identifying projects in China, which must then be approved by the Service and the contributing zoo. In reality, financial costs are much higher than $1 million annually because participating USA zoos devote substantial additional resources (people and funding) to implement their own research and training programmes. For example, in the case of the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, these supplemental monies from 2001 to 2004 averaged $400000 annually. Interestingly, it is these latter funds being provided by all USA holding institutions (as well as supplementary support by Chinese partners) that have driven the increased understanding of giant panda biology - the information found in this book.


For years, zoos were consumers of wildlife, rather than institutions that contributed to conservation. People tend to love zoos, which often provide children with their first personal experiences with wild species. Because zoos can evoke 'nature', they offer a golden opportunity to contribute in diverse ways to conservation. However, it is too easy for zoos to claim erroneously a 'mission' of conservation. Miller et al. (2004) recently offered some useful conservation metrics for zoos, ranging from ensuring that 'conservation thought' defines organisational policy to generating funds for research that actually protects the environment, locally and internationally. In short, it is clear that educating the public -providing living dioramas of species along with strong conservation messages through signage and interactive opportunities - is admirable but not enough. And, in fact, many zoos have become more active players in the conservation world, including through political advocacy, scientific research, fundraising for in situ activities and the training of wildlife professionals (see review Hutchins et al, 2003).

In the case of the giant panda, there are three major ways in which zoos are contributing to conservation, ex situ and in situ.

Fostering partnerships

Conservation science is like no other in that successful programmes must be based on extensive collaborations, in part because so many disciplines are required to deal with encountered biocomplexities.

These include not only biological factors but also cultural, social and economic intricacies associated with resolving most conservation challenges. Each of these problems is like a huge, messy jigsaw puzzle with many multifaceted pieces and no simple, quick solutions (Wildt et al, 2003). Thus it is impossible for a single organisation or discipline (let alone an individual) to effectively and unilaterally address how to understand and protect any wild animal or wild place.

For the giant panda, all research and training programmes so far have been intimately and inextricably tied to organisational and personal relationships. These have occurred at three levels, the first being the early significant association between CBSG and Chinese federal agencies charged with panda management and protection (see Chapter 2). CBSG exists, in large part, because of donations from zoos worldwide that support its modest operating costs. Chinese authorities trusted CBSG because of its reputation as a neutral facilitating organisation - it had no agenda for pandas, only an interest in objectively responding to a call for advice from the Chinese government.

The second level has been between individual western zoos (wanting giant pandas for exhibit) and official partners within China. The latter specifically involves the China Wildlife and Conservation Association (CWCA, within the State Forestry Administration, SFA) and the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens (CAZG, under the umbrella of the Ministry of Construction). Western zoo interests in pandas, combined with CWCA and CAZG awareness about financial needs within China, motivated these legal partnerships. The result then was the transfer of a pair of animals to each approved facility in return for substantial funding to be directed, mostly, at in situ conservation priorities.

Third, and in our opinion the most important, partnerships evolved from personal interactions among people devoted to giant panda science and related training. The result has been substantial cross-institutional and interdisciplinary studies (highlighted throughout this book) as well as a rapidly growing list of other publications throughout the scientific literature. We are frankly unsure why these social interactions progressed so quickly, including the formation of sincere friendships that continue today. Perhaps it has something to do with the natural camaraderie arising from the risks that like-minded people took in collecting biological data from numerous anaesthetised giant pandas, arguably one of the most precious species on the planet. It is also related to spending every waking moment together as a team, eating meals together and unwinding as a group in the evenings. These teams became like 'second families' - for example, sharing anecdotes, poking fun at each other's foibles, comparing family photographs and donning silly hats to celebrate birthdays. However, we suspect that it also has to do with a universal commitment among panda biologists who realise that the popularity of the species (and the related funding that it attracts) offers a unique opportunity to make a meaningful difference. In short, the experience brought out the best in everyone involved, both personally and professionally. All evidence so far indicates that these extensive collaborations have spawned enhanced information sharing, better communication and improved animal management, all of which has fostered even more interest in partnering.

Creating species-specific biological data: tools applicable to in situ conservation and a hedge (insurance) population

The ex situ studies conducted associated with the Biomedical Survey and by other investigators associated with this book could never have been accomplished in remote and uncontrollable field conditions. In fact, good hypothesis-driven studies to understand biological mechanisms about how each species 'works' behaviourally, physiologically and medically are almost impossible to do in situ. This is one reason that many of the 'life sciences' are mostly ignored in the field of conservation biology - it's difficult to collect and interpret data. Yes, certainly, efforts to monitor species' numbers and habitat quality are crucial but can we ultimately save a species in the absence of understanding its biology -its reproductive mechanisms, its sensitivity to stress or its vulnerability to diseases? Such issues cannot be addressed through conventional ecological studies but rather require controlled studies in a regulated environment (Wildt, 2004). For example, virtually all the new information in this book related to (for example) medical issues, male and female reproductive physiology/endocrinology, behaviour, nutrition, developmental biology and genetics could never have been collected from giant pandas living in situ.

The ex situ population provided a unique opportunity to create this scholarly knowledge, much of which could (and probably will) have usefulness in studying and protecting this species in nature. Table 22.1 lists disciplinary examples of how information and tools generated from the ex situ studies can be applicable to giant pandas in nature. These range from the many newly determined species metrics (e.g. useful for assessing age and health status of wild populations, including those in

Table 22.1. Examples of how disciplines and tools developed in ex situ studies of giant pandas could have in situ application

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