China is undergoing enormous social, culture, political and environmental change. Such changes have huge consequences on human beings, as well as flora and fauna. China’s most beloved global icon; the panda, has become a microcosm of China’s struggle to balance development with conservation.
An international symbol of peace and friendship, the panda has an important place in Chinese culture, history and politics. Concerted efforts are being made to conserve this fragile species in China, and rescue it from the brink of extinction. In order to achieve this, China must restore the balance between human beings, development, growth and the environment.
From the earliest historical records, pandas have been regarded as mystical, legendary, noble, brave, fierce, mighty, peaceful and extremely rare. Pandas have long embodied differing attributes. In some circles, ancient warriors were compared to pandas, who, like tigers were acknowledged for great strength. Other historical accounts revered the panda as an “animal of justice,” for being gentle, acknowledging that mighty panda is a peaceful, vegetarian that does not hurt or harm other animals. The lore and mystery of the solitary and rarely seen panda has persisted through time since there were no artistic representations of the panda until the 1900’s.
The giant panda was totally unknown to the western world until the late 1800’s. In 1869, French zoologist and botanist Armand David, discovered a giant panda pelt in a local market, and became the first European to call attention to this bear. Though fascinated by this “exotic” creature, Europeans failed to recognize the giant panda as a bear. Zoos were soon clamoring for a live specimen, and the first zoo (outside of China) to house giant pandas was Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, which took Su Lin in 1936. But with little to no understanding of the biological needs of pandas, these fragile novelties died young: Su Lin survived for just over a year.
In 1949, at the start of modern China, Central Government prohibited export of Giant Pandas. In 1953 China began breeding these bears in domestic zoos. In 1962 China turned a corner with regard to giant panda conservation, banning hunting of these increasingly scarce bears, and in 1963 founded the first giant panda reserves (northwest of Chengdu, in Southwest China), including the critically important Wolong Nature Reserve (in Wolong, Sichuan’s capital). Also in 1963, Beijing Zoo saw the first giant panda born in captivity, named Mingming.
Over the last few decades, “panda diplomacy” has been a central strategy of China’s efforts to normalize relations with foreign countries. A successful era of “Panda diplomacy” began with China’s gift of pandas to First Lady Pat Nixon immediately after President Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972. The United Kingdom Prime Minister received giant pandas based upon his visit to China in 1974. Since then, the giant panda loan programme has helped build relations with other foreign countries, and provided nations across the globe with a chance to experience the wonder of the giant panda.
Over the last 30 years, China’s captive breeding programs have been tremendously successful. Two different panda centers manage 80 percent of China’s captive pandas: Chengdu Research Base (affiliated with the China zoo system) and China Conservation and Research Centre (affiliated with Wolong Nature Reserve and State Forestry Administration). While both centers are in Sichuan, their reach is worldwide, connecting panda conservation across the globe. Veterinary care and reproductive research is the focus of these two leading panda centers—especially for the breeding and raising pandas in captivity. As of the end of 2012, China’s research, quality veterinary care, and breeding programs have built a captive population of roughly 320 pandas, demonstrating the Chinese government’s commitment and competence with regard to preserving captive giant pandas.
In 2006, a new panda conservation chapter began with the start of a reintroduction program: to release captive bred pandas into the wild. Reintroduction training (rehabilitation) started at the Wolong Nature Reserve, where pandas learned necessary skills for survival in the wild, including how to mark territory, forage, build “nests” for napping, recognize and escape predators (such as leopards), and how to cope with parasites, including ticks and mites.
However, the first giant panda released into the wild, Xiang Xiang, was released in 2006 at just 22 months of age and was unable to find and defend his own territory. Just a few months after release, Xiang Xiang was fatally injured by stronger male pandas.
While the importance of captive breeding centers in undeniable, it is equally important to conserve, restore and sustain the habitats in which the panda lives.
Protecting Wild Pandas
In comparison to the tremendous success in the captive breeding programs, less has been accomplished to protect China’s wild pandas over the last 30 years, with the majority of resources being largely focused on captive pandas.
The reason for this is that pandas in captivity allow people to connect with pandas up close and personal. With large heads, woolly coats, and stark colors, giant pandas are eye-catching— and downright adorable. Fundamentally, captive breeding—with all those fuzzy little black and white cubs—is much easier to sell to the public, governments, and NGOs than the long-term task of habitat conservation. Wild pandas, however, are elusive, far from the human eye and the media’s camera lens.
There is a reassuring and well-defined sense of success when dealing with the breeding of captive pandas; comparatively there are numerous complexities and uncertainties to preserve sufficiently large areas of forest for wild pandas. People are generally more supportive of breeding programs that carry tangible perks than they are of hard-to-quantify, long-term habitat protection. Consequently, land conservation has been understaffed and underfunded.
To ensure that pandas can be safely and successfully returned to the wild and their numbers regained, it is imperative that habitat conservation is prioritized to preserve the species.