Priorities For The Future

The Giant Panda Biomedical Survey began with a request from Chinese colleagues for advice about how to better manage disparate groups of giant pandas living in zoos scattered throughout China. This led to identifying a need to systematically assess not just a few of these unique creatures, but more than half the existing captive animals in China. This was not carried out in a unidimensional way or by a handful of people, but rather by an eclectic mix of experts across two diverse cultures. Working hand in hand, the results exceeded our expectations in two ways, first, in creating copious amounts of new biological information for the species, and second by translating the data into a blueprint for continued action to increase health and reproduction.

We believe that these cooperative efforts have resulted in a remarkably quick turnaround in giant panda cub production and survival in China. However, this is not a one-time solution or 'quick fix'. Managers and scientists need to remain vigilant while actively following up on high priorities (offered at the end of each chapter in this book). Much remains to be done with perhaps the highest priority being further implementation of a long-range genetic management plan (see Chapter 21) to ensure that all wild-born founders and genetically valuable individuals reproduce.

There is also a need to determine how best the rapidly growing ex situ population might someday contribute to reversing the dire situation facing giant pandas living in nature. For example, how can new genetic technologies developed to sort out paternity (see chapter 10) be used to facilitate better surveys of wild population numbers? How can the non-invasive monitoring of adrenal hormones (see chapter 8) be used to measure stress in free-ranging pandas under pressure from local encroachment? What diseases are present in the wild population, how do they impact mortality and how can we mitigate their effects? And, if it becomes relevant, how might suitable panda candidates for reintroduction be identified, and how might a reintroduction protocol be tested based on experience with other carnivores?

Such questions highlight the broad knowledge gaps that remain for wild giant pandas, including inadequate ecological information. One of the most serious impediments is the ban by the Central Government of China for using radio-collars to study this species in nature (Mainka et al., 2004). This has a harmful impact on the need to implement long-term projects to examine social behaviour and community structure, diseases and the causes of mortality, population trends and habitat preferences. Solid knowledge of all these topics will be essential to planning and implementing a successful metapopulation management strategy that someday will link wild and captive giant panda populations.

Finally, it is important to re-emphasise that priority needs for all giant pandas and the subsequent implementation of actions have been, and will continue to be, the responsibility of Chinese professionals. Although the species is a beloved worldwide icon, successful conservation in the wild and in zoos will ultimately be the result of decisions and actions of the Chinese and not westerners. The Biomedical Survey adhered to this philosophy and proved the value of working across cultural and disciplinary boundaries while sharing scientific expertise and information, honouring previous work, and appreciating our differences and similarities. The result has been a true international and sustained mutual commitment to tackling important issues in giant panda biology, management and conservation.

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