China's program to breed the endangered giant panda in captivity has been largely successful, with several pandas being kept in zoos outside China, including in the United States. An eminent U.S. ecologist and key supporter of panda conservation, says the program is failing to re-introduce the bears to the wild.
Efforts to save the giant panda strengthened in the 1980’s with the founding of a research base for breeding the bears in Chengdu, in China’s Sichuan province.
The program started off with six giant pandas in 1987. But after a successful breeding program the population has reached over 300 bears held in captivity while a further 1,600 to 2,000 live in the wild.
The pandas, once a carnivore, are almost totally reliant on bamboo and native to China’s Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu Provinces.
Dr Hou Rong Principal Researcher Chengdu Research Foundation (Courtesy: Chengdu Research Foundation)
Dr. Hou Rong, principal researcher at the Chengdu Research Foundation
, says the program has exceeded the initial goal to breed 300 pandas in captivity. “So we have already created a sustainable population in captivity right now. But in the beginning it was really very, very difficult" she explained. "But now we have solved the many problems in the breeding program [so] it really helps to have the captive population [to] increase.”
Dr. Hou says the next step is to re-introduce captive pandas into the wild. But she acknowledges such plans face many challenges. “Our panda have been living in captivity for five generations. So the panda mother doesn’t know how to live in the wild. This is a challenge for us,” she stated.
The program to re-introduce captive pandas to the wild came to a halt after the death of the male panda, ‘Xiang Xiang’, or ‘Lucky’, which was released into the wild in 2006. Xiang Xiang died a year later after apparently being attacked by wild pandas.
Dr. George Schaller is a veteran ecologist and member of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. He travelled to China’s Chang Tang region in 1988 to study the panda. He has also published research on the panda bear and has played a key role in encouraging China to develop the panda conservation program.
Dr. Schaller says the rehabilitation program needs to move forward after being halted following Xiang Xiang’s death. There is little reason, he says, to keep so many Pandas in captivity. “In general China has tried hard. The 350 or so pandas in captivity - and there’s no excuse for having that many. They should make a real effort to rehabilitate them into areas where there’s good forest, good protective areas and [where] pandas are gone or almost gone - and that’s not a big deal, it just takes a bit of will power and time and effort,” he noted.
Schaller says the program’s lack of progress appears to be due to official concerns of facing criticism over further Panda losses in the wild.
“It is a cultural feeling that the animal is seen as better off with a roof over its head. And, as you know, if you release animals some of them are going to come to a bad end. Then persons who released it - the officials are going to be criticized and you avoid that by simply not doing it,” said Schaller.
Schaller says ‘Xiang Xiang’ was released in an area heavily populated by pandas. He says there is also plenty of international assistance available to China to help introduce the bears to the wild. “They’re obviously very rare - if there are only about 2,000 left. On the other hand it’s a species that has more attention and more money than any other endangered species in the world. So most certainly the forest can be protected and the poaching work can continue and the animals can be monitored - there’s plenty of money for all of this,” he said.
The panda’s conservation has led to a balance being restored with the aid of human intervention and science. But as Dr. George Schaller sees it, the time has come to rebuild panda populations in the wild rather than simply keeping them in cages.