The science of behavioural management creating biologically relevant living environments in captivity

ronald r. swaisgood, guiquan zhang, xiaoping zhou, hemin zhang introduction

As for many highly specialised carnivores, breeding giant pandas in captivity has had sporadic gains and setbacks over its 40-year history (see Chapters 1 and 19). Although many husbandry issues have been addressed successfully, we are still learning about behaviour and its relevance to ex situ management. This chapter updates the state of captive breeding at the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda in the Wolong Nature Reserve (hereafter referred to as the Wolong Centre). We also provide details of our scientifically guided husbandry and management strategies that are contributing to a rapidly growing database of scholarly knowledge as well as to recent improvements in reproductive success.

Even with our limited knowledge about giant pandas in nature, it appears that, in the presence of plentiful natural resources and the absence of human disturbance, giant pandas mate, become pregnant and rear offspring without problem. Thus, reproduction is not a limiting factor to wild population viability (Lu et al, 2000). Because this is not the case for the ex situ population, we can surmise that reproductive problems are rooted in the captive environment - a place that fails

Giant Pandas: Biology, Veterinary Medicine and Management, ed. David E. Wildt, Anju Zhang, Hemin Zhang, Donald L. Janssen and Susie Ellis. Published by Cambridge University Press. # Cambridge University Press 2006.

to fully meet the needs of at least some individuals. In principle, and with a proper understanding of species-salient factors, it should be possible to create captive environments that result in, or even surpass, reproductive rates occurring in the wild. Targets for improvement include health, nutrition, husbandry and behavioural management, this chapter concentrating on the latter two factors.

Although human intervention to promote reproduction (including through artificial insemination, or AI) are important back-up tools at the Wolong Centre, the emphasis has been on promoting natural mating and mother-rearing of cubs. This is due to a strong belief that optimal psychological well-being and species-specific behavioural management are prerequisites to a consistently effective propagation programme. It is critical to look to the natural world of giant pandas for guidance, using what is known or inferred from studies of wild individuals (Schaller et al, 1985; Lu et al., 2000). This has been the heart of our research activities (Swaisgood etal., 2000,2001,2003a). Although it is impossible to recreate all aspects of nature in captivity, it makes sense to find ways to reproduce functional aspects of natural animal-environmental interactions.

Improved behavioural management, coupled with advancements in health, nutrition and AI, have led to a population explosion at the Wolong Centre, where giant panda numbers increased from 25 to more than 70 from 1996 to 2003 (some of these are now on loan elsewhere). Captive breeding accounts for almost all of this growth, although a few ailing animals are occasionally rescued from the wild. In a previous report (Zhang et al, 2004), we described how behavioural management added new breeders to the Wolong population from 1996 to 2000. This trend continues today with 10 of 12 females aged 6 to 20 mating naturally from 2000 to 2004. Most of these animals mated in multiple seasons, with five of seven to eight of nine oestrual females mating in a given season. Similarly, from 2000 to 2004, six of seven males residing at the centre mated naturally, and another male mated for the first time at the San Diego Zoo just 3 months after shipment from Wolong. Clearly, much progress has been made since Lu and colleagues (2000) reported that, as of 1997, 74% of adult pandas in captivity had failed to breed. Still, reproduction is problematic for certain individuals and is better for the entire population in some years than others. And, as pointed out by Ballou et al. (in Chapter 21), reproduction and management remain inadequate currently to sustain a genetically viable population. Therefore, it is crucial to learn more to reach genetic goals and to increase overall animal numbers, especially if reintroduction of captive-born individuals is on the horizon.

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