Priorities For The Future

We now have a wealth of tools available to address the challenges associated with understanding giant panda biology and contributing to conservation. Certainly, the highest and most visible priority is to ensure that viable populations remain in nature. Also of importance is a concerted and coordinated effort involving scientists, managers, veterinarians, husbandry personnel and administrators to build a hedge (insurance) population in captivity that can provide new biological information, inspire and educate the public, and help to generate funds to support giant pandas in nature. Although strides have been made in captive breeding, many of the difficulties first discovered more than 40 years ago are still problematic today. It is the authors' opinion that the following issues warrant attention immediately.

Enhance reproductive representation of the adult population

About 15 years ago, only 7% of breeding age males had copulated (Hu, 1990). Although this has increased significantly, the proportion of adult giant pandas that actually reproduce (especially through natural mating) still remains quite low (see Fig. 19.3). One estimate has only about 58.3% of males (14 of 24) in the contemporary population being able to mate naturally (R. Hou, unpublished data). And, despite advanced technologies that enable sophisticated assisted breeding, genetic analysis, enhanced communication among centres and more feasible animal transport, only about 25% of the breeding population is now reproducing. Such data mean that even more research and cooperation are needed as well as perhaps re-thinking what constitutes a 'breeding population'. For example, Snyder et al. (in Chapter 14) suggest that the current strategy of sending pairs of giant pandas to cooperating zoos may work against success. An incompatible pair results in the loss of two valuable individuals indefinitely, especially as zoo staff (having developed affection for the pair) resist an animal exchange and rather decides to wait until next year for a success, which may be unlikely to occur. These authors propose several solutions, which include maintaining an absolute minimum number of animals (more than a pair) in a given institution. Especially important might be maintaining younger adult males in facilities with proven breeder females. The receptive female is then permitted to mate with an older, genetically appropriate male, but then also 'mentors' a younger, inexperienced male, allowing him to develop appropriate breeding behaviours. In this scenario, the concept of maintaining a single pair of giant pandas over many years is rejected in favour of establishing groups on the basis of genetic and behavioural compatibilities.

Most of the behavioural and physiological factors that now limit reproductive success in the captive programme can be resolved scientifically. But the time required to achieve this success will be based largely on our ability to share resources and knowledge. For example, the Biomedical Survey and the many studies that emerged from this collaboration were excellent examples of the cooperative use of intellectual and physical resources. Thus, a high priority is more such collaboration, but not only in research. Particularly important is the sharing of adult offspring (or their gametes) to maintain high levels of genetic diversity. The Chinese giant panda population numbered 161 at the end of 2003 (Xie & Gipps, 2003). Table 19.1 describes the current distribution of giant pandas in the ex situ population. Although giant panda institutions are separated by considerable geographic distance, current technology makes it possible to transport (often rapidly) frozen sperm or the animals themselves. Lastly, while significant studies have been made in past decades, there is a need for more cooperation between the Chinese regulatory agencies responsible for the ex situ populations (i.e. the Ministry of Construction, MoC, and the State Forestry Administration, SFA). There is already a good relationship among the breeding centres and holding zoos, but this 'positive' is often based on informal arrangements and personal relationships without agreement and action by decision-makers at the highest agency levels.

Table 19.1. Number and distribution of ex situ giant panda population (data current to 31 December 2003)

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