Value Of Giant Pandas Ex Situ

If giant pandas should be maintained in captivity then the role of that population in conservation needs to be clearly articulated. Given that we can adhere to a goal whereby the ex situ population is not a detriment to the wild, but rather an advantage for 'enhancement' of giant pandas in nature (Zheng et al., 1997), then we recognise at least six ways in which the captive population of giant pandas is of conservation value.

1. Ambassadorial value. Few people have been fortunate enough to see a giant panda in the wild. Even so, this rarely glimpsed creature has become a worldwide ambassador for the need to conserve threatened habitats and diverse species. What happens to the giant panda also happens to other species sharing the same habitat - the 'umbrella' effect. Saving the mountain regions in which giant pandas live means the protection of the golden monkey, takin, serow, muntjac, tufted deer, red panda, golden pheasant, giant salamander and thousands of other species, including rare plants and invertebrates. Because of the precarious status of wild populations and the difficulty in viewing them in nature, giant pandas in zoos and breeding centres play a crucial role in educating the public. Giant pandas 'up close and personal' are commanding emissaries for their wild counterparts and a tangible reminder of why so much effort needs to be directed at saving wild places.

2. Educational value. In a similar fashion, there is a need to educate the general public about the precarious status of wild populations. Those facilities exhibiting pandas have the responsibility to provide visitors with synthesised lessons about animal anatomy, physiology, ecology and behaviour, ultimately instilling an appreciation of the species and its particular adaptations to the natural environment. Most importantly, zoos and breeding centres must emphasise the imperilled status of wild giant pandas and send the message that captive management is not a substitute for intensive efforts to conserve the species and its habitat in nature. And, finally, given the rapid progress made from systematic studies, we would suggest that interest in giant pandas and the stories emanating from research could become a model to 'turn on' the general public (especially children) to science by demonstrating its value in managing and conserving one of the world's most beloved species.

3. Insurance value. The status of wild giant panda populations is uncertain at best. Although logging operations have ceased, Chinese forests remain fragmented, corridors among habitats have not been established, and new reserves are not yet capable of optimal management. Humans often encroach upon and economically exploit existing reserves, reducing the quality and quantity of habitat (Liu et al., 1997). Most worrisome is the lack of reliable knowledge about numbers, demography and genetic viability of giant pandas in each of these isolated populations. A fragmented population is highly vulnerable to unpredictable events, for example, a disease epidemic or natural catastrophe such as a bamboo die-off. Thus it makes sense that any species facing such a precarious future be 'insured'; a captive programme provides an insurance policy. However, part of the dividend payment by zoos and the public they serve must be dedicated to protecting pandas in nature, thereby avoiding the need to ever 'cash in' the policy.

4. Funding value. Whether we like it or not, the ability to 'experience' giant pandas can have a profound impact on our ability to raise funds - in no other case is it routine to generate $1 million per year to import a wildlife species. Panda appeal translates into serious funding for conservation, not just benefiting giant pandas but many other species sharing the same habitats. Under present conditions set in place by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the $1 million per year from each panda-holding zoo in the USA becomes available for building capacity, whether it involves building roads and ranger stations at newly developed protected areas or training the next generation of Chinese field biologists and zoo scientists (see Chapter 22). Access to giant pandas held in zoos and breeding centres helps to convince politicians, corporations and the private sector to give money that, in turn, will help to ensure resources for conservation now and long into the future.

5. Value for scholarly knowledge. An ex situ giant panda population serves as an invaluable resource for basic and applied biological research. Overall, there has been little detailed, integrated knowledge about giant panda biology, especially in the life sciences. Yet our descriptions above, about species uniqueness explain the need for many more systematic studies. How, for example, can one study disease susceptibility, digestion dynamics or sperm biology in a species that lives in remote and thick, mountainous bamboo forests? One of the most exciting progressions in panda biology in the last few years is agreement among holders that the captive population must be used to better understand the species from a scholarly perspective. Buy-in to this concept is assisted by the realisation that the resulting information will vastly improve ex situ management and eventually may contribute to more enhanced in situ conservation. This book is a testament to the advantage of having accessibility to giant pandas living in controlled environmental conditions for research.

6. Unknown value for the future. There is a sixth undefined reason for maintaining giant pandas ex situ, and that involves unpredictable future advantages of maintaining a genetically viable population. Certainly from an applied conservation perspective there have been recurrent discussions about reintroducing giant pandas into nature - adding new individuals to existing or new reserves (Mainka, 1997). In an ideal world, wild individuals would serve as the source for these movements. However, we must also consider that, realistically, captive populations may be the most reasonable source for these individuals (despite our current vast lack of knowledge about exactly how to reintroduce captive-produced pandas into wild habitats). And, finally, from a scholarly angle, one never knows how basic studies of one species will benefit another. For example, how indeed can a species evolve and survive to modern times when the female is sexually actively for less than 1% of an entire year? Perhaps there are lessons here for other mammals (including humans) in what controls reproductive success. Thus who knows what can be learned from the biologically mysterious giant panda that will benefit other living things?

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