Priorities For The Future

We believe that the value of our observations to date are to re-emphasise the importance of intensive and interdisciplinary assessment of giant pandas - behaviourally and physiologically, as well as among individuals. We have only begun to 'mine' the amount of information that is needed to optimise captive habitats which, in turn, will maximise health and reproduction. This chapter has provided some tantalising evidence that the giant panda is indeed sensitive to its environment. It definitely reacts to acute disruptions, but as yet we have only a limited understanding ofthe impact on psychological and physiological well-being, acutely or long term. Yet it is possible using a combination of tools and approaches described in this chapter to address this topic experimentally. At the same time, it is obvious that highly detailed monitoring will be necessary to identify explicit causes and effects. Resulting data will be highly valued by captive managers, allowing them to design or recreate (e.g. through enrichment) ex situ environments that promote naturalistic behaviours and reproductive functions. Additionally, close tracking through the use of both keepers and researchers, armed with systematic data collection protocols, will allow the earliest possible detection of illness for treatment.

Finally, we predict that stress-related studies of giant pandas living in captivity will have application to studying and conserving wild counterparts. A final example is recent work in our laboratory that has addressed the impact of a radiotelemetry collar placed on a giant panda. For years, controversy has swirled in China about radiocollars being problematic for free-living pandas. Without substantive evidence to the contrary, the central government now bans radiocollars on wild giant pandas, which greatly compromises ecological studies of, for example, movement and foraging activities. To begin to generate real, quantifiable data, we immobilised and fitted four giant pandas at the Wolong ex situ facility with standard radiocollars (Durnin et al, 2004). Behaviours and daily urine samples (for glucocorticoid assessments) were measured for two weeks before and two weeks after collar placement. Despite intensive monitoring, we observed no differences between the control (pre-collar) and treatment (post-collar) interval in any of the observed behaviours or in hormonal profiles or concentrations. The 'absence of stress' after anaesthesia and collar placement offers potentially important new information to decision-making authorities in China. These specific results could be critical in helping to consider lifting the current moratorium on radiocollaring wild giant pandas, a policy that hinders obtaining crucial knowledge about wild populations and individuals. Lastly, it may be that these types of study could also eventually play a role in identifying and remediating a growing list of potential stressors that may well be influencing giant pandas in nature. Many anthropogenic activities, ranging from pollutants, traffic noise and ecotourism to research and conservation activities themselves, may activate stress response systems in wild animals, negatively affecting population fitness (Hofer & East, 1998). It is our hope that these research methods can eventually be adapted for evaluating and managing stress in wild living giant pandas.

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