Mixed Success With China Panda Breeding Program

The burial of Mao Mao the panda has been more widely reported in China than the funeral of any individual human among the nearly 70,000 killed in the Sichuan earthquake. Amid so much death and bereavement, the burial of the 9-year old female bear stands out as a moment of manageable mourning. Its prominence also illustrates the role of pandas as China's royal family and global ambassadors, a loveable national emblem. Every detail is known: Mao Mao's weeping keeper placed apples and bread by her headstone as staff at Wolong panda reserve observed three minutes of silence in a sun-dappled mountain clearing. Five colleagues died in the quake, but their funerals were not media occasions.

Mao Mao's funeral made it onto news bulletins around the world, a symbol of the global popularity of these cuddly-looking creatures. China has never hesitated to exploit this appeal for political ends. Chairman Mao famously gifted two pandas to US President Richard Nixon after his ice-breaking 1972 visit to the Communist country. More recently, China's often-tetchy relations with Japan got a boost when President Hu Jintao arrived in May—the first visit by a Chinese president in more than 10 years—with an offer to replace Tokyo zoo's Lingling, who'd died just days before.

Only China has wild pandas, making them a unique national treasure. It has spent a lot of time, money and effort protecting them from extinction. Superficially at least, it appears to have succeeded. Most conservation energy has gone into breeding programs, which produce captive panda cubs to delight zoo visitors and serve the government's diplomatic dances. But while the breeding program has been an unquestionable success, that success in some ways only highlights past failures to preserve wild panda habitat, and to properly prepare captive-bred pandas for reintroduction into the wild. Only recently have these efforts gained serious attention.

Judged purely by numbers, the breeding program is undoubtedly a success story. Efforts to get the bears to reproduce have been ingenious and sometimes been bizarre. Panda sex videos and mate-swapping during sex played a part in stimulating reluctant animals to impregnate as many females as possible. More conventional scientific efforts focused on artificial insemination. Progesterone testing to determine pregnancy was a major advance. Panda pregnancies are hard to spot, lasting anything from 80 to 300 days, but once scientists know a panda is pregnant, "we will husband her, to ensure she's really peaceful," says Zhang Zhihe, director of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. The Chengdu facility alone has produced 118 pandas since it was founded in 1987, helping stock breeding pens at Wolong. Currently, China has 180 captive pandas, making for roughly 200 worldwide. Chengdu can be confident of producing half a dozen cubs a year, says Dr Zhang. It seems the panda is safe even if this year's output is affected by the recent earthquake, which occurred at the end of mating season.

Captive breeding programs might help scientists win the numbers game, but they hold little prospect of revitalizing the wild population. The first attempt to release a panda into the wild led to the early death of Xiang Xiang, a 5-year old male, in February 2007, less than a year after leaving the safety of his pen. Although Wolong panda reserve gave him assertiveness training, he was no match for wild males. He was treated for fight injuries at the end of 2006, but two months later, at the start of the mating season, he was found dead with broken ribs. The autopsy report—so sensitive it was not released for three months—concluded he was likely hurt in a fight. The bear displayed his soft center to an Australian TV crew who tracked him in the wild in June 2006. When Xiang Xiang saw his ex-keeper, "He was just so excited. He went to grab that guy...he tried to hug him", says crew member Lijia Zhang.

The story of Xiang Xiang shows that, like much of China's turbo-charged industrial production, there's a quality issue. Biologically, the captive-bred animals are pandas, but behaviorally they've morphed into fakes. It's worth asking if they're really pandas at all.

The problem can be seen today in Beijing Zoo, which took delivery of eight panda cubs in May. Their mission: to charm tourists during the Olympic Games. The furry pals lie in a row in their stylish glass enclosure, shredding bamboo with their teeth or gamboling about. The trouble is two-year old pandas would never behave this way in the wild. Wild pandas live solitary lives, only getting together in competitive situations. During mating season, males congregate around a solitary female to fight for her. Young males—aged two to seven - gather to watch the action and learn fighting skills. But "sitting around eating apples, no," admits Dr. Zhang. Female pandas raise their cubs alone till the youngsters reach 18 months old and strike out on their own.

"Behaviorally, there's a big difference compared to the wild panda," says Ling Lin, Chengdu's program director for the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). It works to strengthen nature reserves by teaching monitoring skills and anti-poaching law enforcement. After Xiang Xiang's death, researchers concluded retraining zoo-reared pandas for the outdoor life was impossible. Instead, they hunted for an area big enough to give captive-born cubs a rougher upbringing. "They already went to many places, but most sites they selected are close to the [earthquake] epicentre" and may now be unusable, says Ling. Landslide risks have so far prevented information-gathering on wild panda deaths or quake-damaged bamboo groves.

Fortunately, the Chinese public's growing interest in ecology - fuelled by terrible air quality, unsafe food and industrial disease clusters—has seeped into panda research too. "At first the only purpose was to breed more pandas. Gradually our goals changed to conservation," says Dr Zhang. China has increased the area of panda territory protected by nature reserves so it's now close to 80 percent of all natural panda habitat. The trigger for change was flooding that devastated Sichuan's Yangtze River industrial belt in 1998. Scientists identified upstream logging, and the resultant soil erosion, as a major contributor to the severity of the floods. Officials began to control logging and promote reforestation in the upper Yangtze region, which also helped preserve panda territory. The wild panda census of 2000-03 showed numbers improved by almost 500 bears compared to the mid-1980s, to roughly 1600 total.

Habitat fragmentation and loss is the biggest threat to wild pandas as timber disappears into China's construction boom. In the last 30 years, "more than one third of the natural habitat was lost because of farm land expansion and forest cutting," says WWF's Ling. Pandas are loners who like five to 10 square kilometers of roaming room each, according to Ling. That means the remaining territory can hold only a limited number of bears. The North Minshan mountains, where some 700 of the anti-social animals live, still has room for new neighbors. But the other wild populations are home to fewer than 30 pandas each, raising the risk of inbreeding.

Pandas are living fossils. Their eight million years of history—against a mere two million for humans - undermine claims that they're natural losers, doomed by chronic infertility and a taste for low energy food. Nonetheless, they seem set to remain an exotic diplomatic export, rather than a vibrant recovering population. Despite a successful breeding program and improved numbers of wild pandas, China's conservation efforts are far from being a black-and-white success.