Pan­das Go Wild

The species’ pop­u­la­tion has been re­bound­ing, thanks to China’s cap­tive-breed­ing pro­gram. The chal­lenge now is re­turn­ing the bear to its na­tive habi­tat.


Icrouch low in the grass to get a closer look at the an­i­mal lurch­ing to­ward me. She’s about four months old, the size of a soc­cer ball, slightly bug-eyed and no doubt soft and fra­grant as a puppy. The urge to scoop her up and squeeze her is over­whelm­ing.

That adora­bil­ity is one rea­son why the gi­ant panda is an in­ter­na­tional sen­sa­tion, as well as a cul­tural icon and an eco­nomic gold mine in China. Now the world is watch­ing China’s dogged at­tempt to keep pan­das on the map.

Like many species, gi­ant pan­das have de­clined as a grow­ing hu­man pop­u­la­tion has grabbed wild lands for its own uses. But since 1990, when the species was la­belled en­dan­gered, the Chi­nese have per­fected breed­ing meth­ods and built a cap­tive pop­u­la­tion hun­dreds strong.

What comes next in this bear’s con­ser­va­tion may de­ter­mine whether the gi­ant panda be­comes a relic be­hind bars or roams free in the wild.

TO SAT­ISFY THEIR LOVE for bam­boo, which rep­re­sents 99 per cent of their food, gi­ant pan­das used to range across south­ern and eastern China and north­ern Myan­mar and Viet­nam. Now they’re only found in patchy moun­tain habi­tat in China, in per­haps one per cent of their his­toric ter­ri­tory.

The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment’s most re­cent panda sur­vey, from 2014, re­ported 1,864 in the wild, 17 per cent more than in 2003. But Marc Brody, who founded the con­ser­va­tion non-profit Panda Moun­tain, warns that it’s tough to trust any spe­cific fig­ures. “We may just be get­ting bet­ter at count­ing pan­das,” he says.

In the mean­time, the Chi­nese are fu­ri­ously breed­ing their iconic bear in cap­tiv­ity. Up un­til the late 1990s, there were a lot of failed at­tempts, both at breed­ing and at keep­ing cubs alive.

With as­sis­tance from abroad, the Chi­nese turned things around. David Wildt, of the Smith­so­nian Con­ser­va­tion Bi­ol­ogy In­sti­tute, was part of the in­ter­na­tional team that first worked with Chi­nese sci­en­tists on panda bi­ol­ogy and hus­bandry. “Pretty soon they had piles of baby pan­das,” he says. “In a sense we trained our­selves right out of a job.”

Much of the ac­tion hap­pens at Bifengxia Panda Base, or BFX, where I had my close-up with cubs. Visi­tors here can see adult bears in out­door yards—hunched over broad bel­lies and chomp­ing mess­ily on long bam­boo stalks from enor­mous piles de­liv­ered sev­eral times a day.

Up a hill from these ex­hibits lies the staff-only build­ing, where bears in the breed­ing pro­gram re­side. Typ­i­cally there is a fe­male panda in each en­clo­sure, some­times with a cub in her arms.

“Even af­ter many years, when­ever a panda is preg­nant or gives birth here, ev­ery­one is so joy­ful and ex­cited,” vet­eran keeper Zhang Xin told me. “We look ev­ery day at the adults, the ba­bies, how much they are eat­ing, what their poo looks like, if their spirit is good. We just want them to be healthy.”

In this set­ting, lit­tle about panda pro­duc­tion is nat­u­ral. Drop­ping a male in with a fe­male can even lead to ag­gres­sion in­stead of mat­ing. To set the mood, breed­ers in China have tried “panda porn”—videos of pan­das mat­ing—mostly for the en­cour­ag­ing sounds; ap­ples on sticks to tempt males into mount­ing po­si­tion; Chi­nese herbs; and even Vi­a­gra and sex toys. Zhang Hemin, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the China Con­ser­va­tion and Re­search Cen­ter for the Gi­ant Panda, which over­sees BFX and two other panda bases, re­calls an awk­ward shop­ping trip to an “adult toy store” in Chengdu. “I had to ask for a re­ceipt to sub­mit to the gov­ern­ment for re­im­burse­ment,” he told me.

Now pro­to­col in­cludes ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion. Part of the chal­lenge is that fe­male pan­das are fer­tile just once a year for only 24 to 72 hours. En­docri­nol­o­gists mon­i­tor hor­mones in the urine that can pre­dict ovu­la­tion and may in­sem­i­nate sev­eral times to boost the chances of im­plan­ta­tion.

Then, for months, fe­males keep the keep­ers guess­ing. “It’s hard to know if a panda is preg­nant,” says BFX’s di­rec­tor, Zhang Gui­quan. “The fe­tus is so tiny that it’s easy to miss on an ul­tra­sound.” Pan­das can have de­layed im­plan­ta­tion, ex­tremely var­ied ges­ta­tion times and quiet mis­car­riages.

This mas­sive cap­tive-breed­ing ef­fort might sug­gest that pan­das are sim­ply sex­u­ally inept. Not so. For mil­lions of years wild bears have done the deed with­out hu­man in­ter­ven­tion, based on nat­u­ral cy­cles, scent mark­ing, mat­ing calls and com­plex so­cial re­la­tion­ships that are mostly miss­ing in cap­tiv­ity.

“What we are ask­ing them to do— ba­si­cally have sex in a phone booth with a crowd of peo­ple watch­ing—

Some of the cubs in the in­cu­ba­tor room are nap­ping; oth­ers are wide-eyed

and wig­gly, squeak­ing like toy dogs.

has lit­tle to do with real panda re­pro­duc­tion,” says Smith­so­nian ecol­o­gist Wil­liam McShea.

Still, the re­searchers are get­ting big re­sults. Thirty-eight cubs were born in China in 2015. (BFX pro­duced 18 of them, its high­est num­ber yet.) In the panda kinder­garten build­ing at the cen­tre of BFX is the im­mac­u­late in­cu­ba­tor room, where the cubs, when not with mama or a sur­ro­gate mother bear, get 24-hour hu­man care.

Visi­tors out­side press their noses and cam­eras against the in­cu­ba­tor room win­dow, oohing and aahing over five fluff­balls in bas­kets on the floor. Some of the cubs are nap­ping; oth­ers are wide-eyed and wig­gly, squeak­ing like dog toys.

Liu Juan, pe­tite and shy be­hind square-rimmed glasses, is work­ing a 24-hour shift, her sec­ond one that week. She has a tod­dler son who stays at home with family. “This job is in­tense,” she says of moth­er­ing the pan­das, “but I love be­ing with them.”

In­cu­bat­ing the new­borns, bot­tle feed­ing, rock­ing, burp­ing, re­spond­ing to their bleats for at­ten­tion, weigh­ing, mea­sur­ing, rub­bing bel­lies to stim­u­late the gut and keep­ing tod­dlers from wan­der­ing—“the work is non-stop, a crazy amount,” says Liu. Her puffy or­ange slip­pers make a shush­ing sound across the floor as she chases an es­capee. “My body never re­cov­ers. I’ve lost hair from be­ing un­der so much stress.” There is mas­sive pres­sure, she says, to keep the cubs alive: “They are so im­por­tant to China.”

MOST PAN­DAS AT BFX will spend their lives in cap­tiv­ity, in China or in zoos abroad. But else­where in Sichuan Prov­ince, re­searchers have a much wilder fu­ture in mind for baby bears.

He­taop­ing, a panda base within the Wo­long Na­ture Re­serve, is a series of stone and con­crete build­ings socked into a val­ley of the Qionglai Shan Moun­tains. Since 1980, the Chi­nese have been work­ing here with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the first West­ern or­ga­ni­za­tion to co-op­er­ate on pan­das with the gov­ern­ment. The WWF sent renowned bi­ol­o­gist Ge­orge Schaller to con­duct re­search that be­came the ba­sis for what we know of pan­das to­day.

Zhang Hemin worked with Schaller in the field. “It was then that I learned to deeply love the panda,” he told me. Zhang had a favourite bear, a cu­ri­ous fe­male who stole his food one snowy night be­fore tak­ing over his tent. “She used it for months, com­ing back each night, leav­ing me gifts of fe­ces in my bed.”

These days, se­lect cubs are trained for life in the wild at He­taop­ing. Keep­ers wear panda cos­tumes scented with panda urine so young bears don’t get used to hu­mans. A cub here re­mains with its mother and is eased to­ward wild­ness. Af­ter a year or so, the pair is moved to a large, fenced-in

habi­tat up the moun­tain where the mother can con­tinue coach­ing her off­spring. To qual­ify for re­lease, Zhang ex­plained, a young panda must be in­de­pen­dent; wary of other an­i­mals, in­clud­ing hu­mans; and ca­pa­ble of find­ing food and shel­ter unaided.

Ad­e­quate habi­tat for the bears’ re­lease is a con­cern. Since the 1970s the Chi­nese have gone from 12 to 67 panda re­serves. But many are very small, pop­u­lated by vil­lagers and cut up by roads, farms and other hu­man con­struc­tions. More than a third of wild pan­das live or ven­ture be­yond re­serves’ in­vis­i­ble bound­aries, says the Smith­so­nian’s McShea, where habi­tat may be marginal.

On a pos­i­tive note, “poach­ing isn’t a prob­lem here—no­body is touch­ing pan­das,” McShea says. (Hunt­ing pan­das was le­gal in China un­til the 1960s; now killing one could mean 20 years in prison.)

A mas­sive earth­quake in 2008, which de­stroyed part of He­taop­ing and was es­ti­mated to have killed 90,000 peo­ple, gave the gov­ern­ment fod­der to per­suade vil­lagers liv­ing in bear habi­tat to move. Of­fi­cials built a series of low­land vil­lages to house many of the dis­placed. But some refuse to let go of their old life. Li Sh­u­fang, a 76-year-old woman I vis­ited in the sim­ple home she shares with rel­a­tives, walks sev­eral hours a day, up and down the moun­tain, to tend to pigs and a gar­den where the family lived be­fore the quake. When I asked how she felt about mak­ing way for pan­das, she spat back in a lo­cal di­alect, “Why didn’t they move the pan­das in­stead?”

To turn the re­claimed land into bear habi­tat, lo­cals are hired to plant seedlings where forests were di­min­ished by log­ging or quake dam­age. But the moun­tain­ous ter­rain makes it hard to plant on a large scale, so the land­scape re­mains frag­mented, which means the panda pop­u­la­tions do too.

Barney Long, di­rec­tor of species con­ser­va­tion at Global Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion, says that only nine of some 33 panda sub­pop­u­la­tions have enough an­i­mals to per­sist long term.

For an en­dan­gered species with fewer than 2,000 an­i­mals in the wild, ev­ery in­di­vid­ual counts.

Cli­mate-change mod­els warn that in the next 70 years, warm­ing could re­duce the re­main­ing gi­ant panda habi­tat by nearly 60 per cent. At least for now, re­build­ing, con­nect­ing and pro­tect­ing habi­tat may be the best fo­cus for panda con­ser­va­tion.

Of the five bears re­leased since 2006, all wear­ing track­ing col­lars, three are still out there. Two were found dead, one prob­a­bly the vic­tim of ag­gres­sion from wild male pan­das. Like breed­ing, rewil­d­ing the an­i­mals “will take trial and er­ror, time and money,” McShea says. “But the Chi­nese will be suc­cess­ful.”

Zhang Hemin is sim­i­larly con­fi­dent: “I’ve had two im­por­tant jobs in my life so far: to get pan­das breed­ing, which is now no prob­lem. Now we have to make sure there’s good habi­tat and then put pan­das in it.”

And once they’re run­ning free and ready to mate? “We hope they like each other, but we can’t in­ter­fere,” says He­taop­ing keeper Yang Changjiang. “What comes next will be up to them.” OVER FOUR DAYS in Novem­ber 2015, a Wo­long cub named Hua Jiao (Del­i­cate Beauty) is caught, given a fi­nal health check, fit­ted with a col­lar, crated and driven over 300 kilo­me­tres to the Lizip­ing Na­ture Re­serve. It has good bear habi­tat and a small panda pop­u­la­tion ripe for a new mem­ber.

Un­der a bright blue sky, four men po­si­tion Hua Jiao’s cage fac­ing the for­est. With­out fan­fare, a keeper un­latches the door. At first the young panda stays put at the back of the crate, munch­ing bam­boo, her last cap­tive meal. Af­ter to­day she’ll fend for her­self in ev­ery way. In a few years she may seek a mate and could add five or more cubs to the pop­u­la­tion over her life­time. It’s not a game-chang­ing num­ber, but for an en­dan­gered species with fewer than 2,000 an­i­mals in the wild, ev­ery in­di­vid­ual counts.

Fi­nally, with some coax­ing from the keep­ers, Hua Jiao emerges, blink­ing into the light. And then, with­out a glance back at her cap­tors, she lopes to­ward free­dom.

Ye Ye, a 16-year-old gi­ant panda, lounges in a wild en­clo­sure at

Wo­long Na­ture Re­serve.

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