Priorities For The Future

This overview of our experiences with behavioural management and enrichment at a major ex situ giant panda centre in China has emphasised the value of science and biological relevance as the most useful tools for developing effective species management. Mating behaviour was once severely impaired by poorly understood behavioural deficits. However, today all but the most reluctant pandas can be encouraged to mate as a result of combined sound scientific data and good judgement. Although there is no universal recipe for success, a decision tree (as discussed above) can guide managers through the contingencies likely to be encountered when attempting to pair and mate two sometimes recalcitrant giant pandas. Regardless, if there is one consistency within this species, it is that no two individuals are alike in behaviour and temperament (Zhang et al., 2004). Therefore it will continue to be necessary to tailor methods to unique individuals.

The contributions of enrichment to reproduction have been more difficult to quantify, but in fact may be most important. Clearly, enrichment leads to short-term reductions in behaviours indicative of poor psychological health. Therefore, continuing to enhance living environments should impact positively on overall well-being on a protracted and perhaps permanent basis. We need not wait to know the precise long-term impact of enrichment - there are enough lessons already learned from other species to satisfy us that a better captive environment is good for the giant panda. Studies of laboratory species have demonstrated a variety of positive developmental effects on brain function, with enriched animals having a higher brain weight, more glial cell and synaptic connections between neurones, increased neurotransmitters and more RNA(Renner & Rosenzweig, 1987). These findings may reflect memory consolidation and, therefore, improved learning ability, less emotional reactivity, more exploratory capacity and less hesitancy with novel objects and places. Animals living in enriched environments may also exhibit lower levels of pituitary-adrenal activation and other indices of chronic stress (Shepherdson et al., 1998) which, in turn, can lead to suppressed immune function, reproductive failure and higher disease rates (Hofer & East, 1998). We can infer from these findings that pandas raised in enriched environments will be smarter, healthier, more adaptable and better candidates for future projects, such as reintroduction. Ironically, the scientific determination of the true value of enrichment may never be documented in this species. Due to the pre-ciousness of every individual, we plan to 'leave no giant panda behind', thereby eliminating comparative controls without enrichment.

The future mandates that we scientifically determine the best ways to identify which enrichment strategies are ideal. Among the priority challenges is the absolute need to ensure that all giant pandas outside the natural world are living inside high-quality, naturalistic enclosures. Second, all pandas should receive an ample and consistent supply of bamboo and other fibre-rich food. Third, researchers should continue to collaborate with animal caretakers to devise and fine-tune supplemental enrichment programmes, tailoring to different age-sex groups or even to individuals. If conducted carefully, such studies will allow hypothesis testing and data quantification/analysis to identify ideal protocols.

Suppose for the moment that these rather grand goals are indeed realised. That, combined with the need to manage the population genetically to maintain all existing genetic diversity (see Chapter 21) would, we hope, result in a healthy, well-adjusted and viable ex situ population. The question then becomes: toward what end is this work with captive animals aimed? Part of the answer has already been addressed in Chapters 1 and 2. Such populations are valuable as insurance for wild counterparts and to inspire and educate the public. But what is most exciting is the opportunity to learn from captive animals - to generate new scholarly knowledge that can increase the population even further and eventually support giant pandas in nature. We believe that the scientific community is well on its way from data gathering with the ex situ population to advancing species conservation in situ. In the context of the discipline of behaviour, we are advocates for the value of giant panda scents to further field conservation (Swaisgood et al., 2004). By learning how individuals respond to each other's odours in captivity, it is possible to infer how odours could be placed in field situations to encourage pandas to use unoccupied areas in new reserves or habitat corridors. Additionally, conservation initiatives will eventually begin in Wolong and elsewhere which will target animal reintroduction, with the first efforts being both experimental and instructive. Certainly, the success of such a programme will lie not in the sheer quantity of pandas released but in the quality of the introduced individuals. Natural behaviours, adaptability and cognitive abilities will be essential, and it has already been demonstrated in other successfully reintroduced species that these traits can be instilled through excellent management and enrichment programmes (Shepherdson, 1994).

Much remains to be learned about the giant panda, but some of the mystery enshrouding this iconic species is being resolved through a host ofsystematic studies conducted across disciplines, through partnerships and being summarised in texts such as this one and in another recent contribution (Lindburg & Baragona, 2004). This approach is crucial if this beloved species is to be conserved while proving to sceptics that all the effort is indeed worth it. Who would have guessed that the many problems facing this species in captivity and surmised by some to be virtually insurmountable (Lu et al., 2000) would in fact be overcome in a relatively short time? Yet scientifically guided management is making impressive progress, and the near future must be directed at more studies applying all existing new data to more focused conservation efforts in the field. In particular, our new knowledge should be merged with the approaches of panda research pioneers, including George Schaller, Jinchu Hu, Zhi Lu and Wenshi Pan, and joining field biologists in a full, participatory exchange of skills, information and ideals.

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