Giant pandas in China are managed under the authority of two federal agencies. One is the Ministry of Construction (MoC), which regulates giant panda activities in Chinese zoos under the umbrella of its Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens (CAZG). The CAZG (based in Beijing) has the enormous task of monitoring more than 80 zoos scattered throughout China. In 1996, there were 104 giant pandas distributed across 27 zoological parks throughout China, with the majority held in two facilities, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (and its allied Chengdu Zoo) and Beijing Zoo. The other management authority is the State Forestry Administration (SFA), which is responsible for all giant pandas living in nature plus a major facility (China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda) in the famous Wolong Nature Reserve (Sichuan Province) located about 130 km northwest of Chengdu. In 1996, this facility held 29 pandas.
By the mid 1990s, there were three large and serious breeding programmes for giant pandas:
1. China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda (within the Wolong Reserve).
2. Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (on the outskirts of Chengdu City).
3. Beijing Zoo (in the heart of the national capital).
These efforts were complemented by a few zoos (for example in Chongqing, Fuzhou and Shanghai) which maintained a handful of pandas that occasionally reproduced. Lastly, there were approximately 23 zoos that held only one to three individuals, with pairs rarely producing offspring.
Historically, communication among the giant panda stakeholders was less than ideal with hesitancy to share information mostly related to competition for resources, specifically funding. The giant panda is a national treasure for China, so there is naturally much prestige and favour associated with the ability to be the best at managing captive populations. Nonetheless, the giant panda world in China - in terms of total people involved - is relatively small. Regardless of home institution or federal affiliation, the various captive breeding managers and staff generally knew and respected one another despite having few opportunities to meet. One exception was what was called the Annual Technical Meeting for Giant Pandas, which was sponsored by the CAZG and generally held in Chengdu. This three-day event was usually designed as a 'reporting meeting', an opportunity for giant panda managers to share information from the previous breeding season and hopefully boast about the number of cubs produced at their institutions.
However, by 1995 there was concern that little overall progress was being made. While indeed some individual giant pandas were reproducing, most were not. There were reports of mortalities and illness. Occasionally, giant pandas were taken from the wild to be incorporated into breeding programmes - 18 individuals from 1991 through 1996. These challenges, although unsettling, were motivation for action. The key instigator was Shuling Zheng, then Vice-Director of the Department of Urban Construction of MoC. Madam Zheng directed her staff within the CAZG to put in place a masterplan for captive giant pandas. It was her vision that prompted the beginning of an exciting era in zoo research and management in China.
When it came to identifying an organisation that could assist Chinese zoos and breeding centres with the contemporary challenges in ex situ panda management, the natural choice for CAZG was the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, better known as CBSG. This small organisation, with only six permanent staff in 1996, is based in Apple Valley, MN, at the Minnesota Zoo. CBSG's organizational parent is the prestigious IUCN-World Conservation Union of Gland, Switzerland. Through the IUCN's Species Survival Commission, CBSG stormed into the conservation world under the dynamic leadership of Dr Ulysses S. Seal (Fig. 2.2). Better known as Ulie (from zoo directors to animal keepers alike), Seal had worked tirelessly since 1980 to build CBSG into a force to benefit conservation. His arrival on the scene was perfectly timed as it coincided with a rapidly emerging attitude within the zoological community at large - zoos needed to be more than simply amusement parks for the public - they must contribute to conservation.
Ulie Seal was trained as a biomedical scientist and for decades had conducted human and animal-related research at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Minneapolis. But his real interest was always in zoos, wildlife and how people could make a difference in preserving and better managing species. Of his many strengths, Seal was best known for his uncompromising philosophy that people can, and should, work together to solve problems. He was relentless in his dedication to breaking down political territorialities and jealousies, which are rife in the wildlife world and, on occasion, have contributed to the demise of entire species. During the 1980s, CBSG had become involved in some of the most difficult recovery programmes ever undertaken for endangered wildlife, including the Florida panther, black-footed ferret and Sumatran tiger, among others. Seal was a master of provoking action by bringing people together, even diverse characters with strong distastes for one another. His dynamism, folksy mannerisms, good humour and cajoling ability to convert even the most cantankerous person into an obliging partner were legendary. Most of all, CBSG developed a reputation as being 'agenda-less' - a neutral organisation with its roots in strong science that could enter any difficult fray to generate positive energy - and action.
CBSG was not new to China. In 1993, along with the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group, it had been invited by the MoC to conduct a Population and Habitat Viability Assessment (a risk-evaluation workshop) for the baiji or Yangtze river dolphin. Despite this species being on the edge of extinction, the Chinese were impressed with Ulie Seal's objective, respectful and dedicated attempts to find potential options for saving this critically endangered species. This effort was followed by a 1995 invitation to develop a Captive Breeding Management Plan for the South China tiger. Again, this was no small task since this unique tiger subspecies is extremely rare in zoos (fewer than 65 individuals total), and the population is poor at reproduction, probably due to inbreeding depression. Again, the Chinese appreciated CBSG's equitable and proactive approach.
The ability to organise effective workshops, fairness in ensuring that all stakeholders were 'heard' and direct assistance in producing written documents (guidebooks for the future to help each species) solidified CBSG's credibility in China. As a result, the MoC issued an invitation to CBSG in early 1996 to assist in developing a 'masterplan for captive giant pandas'. More specifically, the invitation called for help in developing a 'scientifically based management programme that would result in a healthy, growing population of giant pandas in China'. How this eventually could emerge was left to the devices of CBSG.
Ulie Seal immediately responded to China's invitation, but added that CBSG's participation came with a condition - that the visiting team be comprised only of specialists from institutions that were not interested in loans of giant pandas. This caveat was related to Seal's insistence that the process be neutral. He suggested that a workshop of four days be held at a time and location most convenient to the Chinese. Seal at once formulated his specialist team which included Phil Miller (population biologist on the CBSG staff), Jill Mellen (a specialist in animal behaviour and enrichment from the Washington Park Zoo in Portland), Lyndsay Phillips (a veterinarian on the faculty of the University of California-Davis) and David Wildt (a reproductive biologist from the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park).
Beginning on 10 December 1996 the CBSG team met their 30 Chinese colleagues in a cold and drafty conference room in a public park building in downtown Chengdu. The only other foreigner present was Don Lindburg, an animal behaviourist from the Zoological Society of San Diego. The San Diego Zoo had recently finalised a giant panda loan agreement with the SFA and, thus, already was deeply involved in ex situ studies in China. Because he was a guest of the Chinese as well as a renowned scientist, Seal agreed that Lindburg's presence did not compromise CBSG's impartiality. Meanwhile, the Annual Technical Meeting for Giant Pandas was being held in parallel at another Chengdu site with additional Americans attending, but not allowed to attend the CBSG workshop (Fig. 2.3).
A CBSG workshop is a loosely structured process with minimal formality and maximal opportunities for open discussion, sometimes in plenary but most often in small working groups of three to six people. Every significant point is recorded on flip chart paper and/or in laptop computers to ensure that everyone is 'heard' and that there is a permanent record of progress. In the case of this first giant panda workshop, there also was the challenge of language differences. There was only one Chinese delegate, a young biologist by the name ofWei Zhong, who spoke fluent English; none of the Americans spoke a word of Chinese. A professional translator had been hired but she spent much of her time stymied by the foreign (to her) biological terms being tossed about by the CBSG team and the Chinese delegation. No doubt many of the participants were (at least internally) beginning to panic during the early hours of the workshop as everyone struggled to communicate while wondering what would emerge from this cross-cultural experience.
Ulie Seal persevered though, as he had done so many times before. He stood before all the participants on the afternoon of day one and, with young Wei Zhong translating, took control. After complimenting the Chinese on their advances in captive breeding and their foresight in developing a plan for the future, he declared in his booming Georgia drawl that 'Y'all are a black hole for giant pandas.' The American team was stunned, and poor Wei Zhong, who had been so proudly standing next to the famous Professor Seal, looked dumbfounded about how to translate such potentially inflammatory words. So as not to miss this one opportunity to get everyone's attention, Seal looked directly at the young Chinese biologist, repeated his words and politely asked him to translate. A long stream of Chinese words emerged from Zhong while all the nervous Americans intently watched the faces of their Chinese colleagues. Although we will never know for sure what Zhong said, it was heartening that gradually
throughout the room we saw the nodding up and down of heads in agreement.
Seal then ask the delegates the question: what is your reason for having giant pandas in zoos in China? What is your goal? This provoked more than 15 minutes of frenetic discussion, all of which, of course, was a mystery to the American contingent. Then, Mr Anju Zhang, the most senior scientist at the workshop and a respected authority on giant pandas, gave the group's consensus answer:
The goal is to develop a self-sustaining population of giant pandas that will assist supporting a long-term, viable population in the wild.
This statement could not have been more appropriate or profound for the situation. It reflected two major points. First, it was a public declaration that the ex situ giant panda population was not self-perpetuating, and that it was a mistake to continue to support zoo breeding programmes by removing more pandas from nature. Second, that there was a need to articulate clearly the value of these special animals in captivity and that their presence needed to contribute somehow to conserving giant pandas in nature.
The setting of a goal clearly provided the guideposts for the remainder of the workshop. The participants were asked to use their knowledge and experience to generate a list of their concerns which might prohibit them from reaching their stated goal. A long list of issues emerged, which was condensed into three categories:
1. demographics and history of the current population;
2. reproduction, behaviour and management;
3. mortality, veterinary issues and nutrition.
Each of these was then addressed in small working groups which were facilitated by the CBSG representatives. While the many details emanating from these discussions are beyond the scope of this book (see Zheng et al, 1997 for details), a few highlights will allow the reader to understand how the participants eventually reached the conclusion for a much-needed Biomedical Survey.
Highlights from the demographics working group
The Giant Panda Studbook (containing information on every individual dating back to Su Lin, the original animal imported to the USA
in 1936) was used with computer simulations to better understand population status. Laptop modelling revealed that a self-sustaining captive giant panda population, with no augmentation from the wild, could increase at 5 to 6% per year and, therefore, theoretically double within only 12 to 14 years. However, this would depend on identifying and then resolving all the limitations to reproductive success. The records also showed that the annual growth rate of the captive population had fluctuated widely. There was a burst of growth from 1984 to 1986, a flat, no-growth period from 1987 to 1990, another spurt in growth from 1991 to 1995, followed by no net growth in 1996. More detailed examination revealed additional findings, one being that some of the growth was not due to births but rather animals being captured from the wild. Second, regardless of these extractions, reproductive success was inconsistent with most young being produced by only a few animals. In theory, breeding-age females (generally 6 to 20 years old) can produce, on average, two litters every three years or about 10 litters in a lifetime. But by 1996 many eligible females (almost 65%), including founders (previously captured from the wild), had produced no offspring. There were two results, the first being that about 10 of the females were responsible for half of all births and, second, valuable genes were being lost from founders who never produced offspring.
The situation was even more ominous for males. In 1996, there were 33 males (6 to 26 years of age and presumably able to produce sperm) in captivity in China. Only five (15.2%) had descendants with a whopping 22 animals being valuable (wild-born) founders that had never reproduced.
In summary, this working group acknowledged that there was a relatively high retention of gene diversity within the living captive population. But there were many animals that were unrepresented due to poor reproduction. Thus the highest priority was to identify the reason(s) for both male and female propagation failure so that these genetically valuable pandas could be reproductively recruited into the population. The group concluded that, if this could be achieved, then there was more than adequate gene diversity in the founder stock to meet a programme goal of retaining 95% of existing genetic variation for the next 100 years (a common target in zoo breeding programmes). And there would never be the need to remove another giant panda from the wild.
Highlights from the reproduction, behaviour and management working group
This group was comprised of a large contingent of managers who had a wealth of information on giant pandas, most of which was in their heads, having never been written down. Again, common problems among institutions surfaced, especially personal experiences in failed reproduction for both male and female pandas. Frequent comments referred to animals that were too aggressive, too meek or completely lacking interest in sex, frequent dystocia (difficult birth) and spontaneous abortion. In an attempt to determine if there was any common factor across the diverse organisations, a large paper matrix was created on one of the walls of the meeting room and the group recorded their experiences on the basis of such factors as age of weaning and later reproductive success, ability to reproduce in captive-born versus wild-caught individuals and the influence of differing diets or enclosure enrichment schemes. Nothing significant emerged from this rough and nonsystematic analysis. Nonetheless, a pattern of results was being revealed.
This working group concluded that, even if natural reproduction could be improved, there remained a need to develop assisted breeding procedures. Reproductive technologies normally span a wide range of procedures from straightforward AI to controversial cloning. Although the Chinese expressed interest in the potential of embryo transfer for more rapidly increasing offspring production, the group did not get carried away with high technology. The predominant needs involved developing techniques for monitoring reproductive status by measuring hormones in urine or faeces and improving artificial insemination with fresh and frozen sperm. The latter also stimulated a recommendation for eventually creating a genome resource bank, a frozen repository of giant panda sperm that could be used to move genetic material from one institution to another.
Highlights of the mortality, veterinary and nutrition working group
Participants interested in nutrition rapidly found common areas of concern, especially being suspicious that a suboptimal diet for captive-held giant pandas contributed to poor growth, health and reproduction.
Each of the holding institutions relied on widely variant feeding programmes with no standardised protocol to address the question: what is the best dietary protocol for zoo-held giant pandas? This working group also believed that disease was a major threat to the captive population, especially for infants and subadults five years or less in age. Although there were few quantitative data, the diseases or conditions listed as occurring in giant pandas in Chinese institutions were chronic gastrointestinal distress, haemorrhagic enteritis, epilepsy, infectious viruses (canine distemper and parvovirus) and demodectic mange.
No other working group emphasised more the importance of building capacity to assist in ensuring the health and reproduction of giant pandas in the future. These participants recognised a need for significant amounts of information sharing, especially in diagnosing and treating risky health conditions. They realised that much of their information was based on anecdotal evidence, in part because of lack of specialised training, inadequate equipment, no computerised record-keeping and too little reliance on the field of pathology to understand the root causes of many medical problems.
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