The need for cooperation, coordination and integration
The International Studbookfor the Giant Panda (e.g. Xie & Gipps, 2001) is the basis for evaluating demographic and genetic characteristics of the current captive population of this species. These data require updating annually before each reproductive season to allow the best breeding recommendations to be made. Studbook information should also be supplemented, when necessary, with molecular genetics data to resolve any uncertainties in paternity. Indeed, the ex situ population of giant pandas within China is growing rapidly at about 6% per year, and life-history characteristics have improved as captive-born animals account for more of the reproduction. Genetically, the population is healthy with many wild-caught founders represented - there is high genetic diversity and low levels of inbreeding. However, because there has been little gene flow between the primary breeding centres, populations within these institutions have significant genetic differences. Animals within institutions are becoming increasingly related, in part, because only a few males are producing most of the young. Such males (with high mean kinship values) need to be retired from the breeding programme. Otherwise, overbreeding of certain individuals (including females) will result in a population in the near future where it will be difficult to avoid pairing related individuals. A global cooperative genetic management programme that minimises mean kinship while ensuring exchanges of animals (or germ plasm) among institutions is key to a strong future for giant pandas living in captivity. The word 'global' indeed means worldwide cooperation that includes contributions from those giant pandas that have been provided on loan to western countries. Their offspring and/or germ plasm will also need to be widely dispersed according to genetic and demographic needs, including back into Chinese breeding programmes where, of course, the majority of animals live.
Finally, given these collective concerns, there is a need to develop a Cooperative Breeding Plan for the ex situ giant panda population, which is organised under a recognized 'management group'. During the 2002 Chengdu workshop, it was recommended that such a group be formed and include two co-coordinators (one from the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens and one from China Wildlife and Conservation Association) as well as the current Giant Panda Studbook Keeper and representatives from all major breeding facilities. The purpose of this management group would be to develop and implement a formal Cooperative Breeding Plan to ensure that the captive population remains demographically and genetically viable based on annual breeding recommendations derived from yearly quantitative analyses. The management group should also develop a husbandry manual, monitor and provide advice to existing and potentially new breeding facilities, seek out funds to support high-priority research and training, and develop a website. When necessary, the management group should be supported by external experts (from China or abroad) in the areas of reproduction, nutrition, genetics, population biology, veterinary medicine, behaviour, pathology, conservation, education and genome resource banking. What is exciting is that most of these disciplinary components are already available and have started working together successfully.
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