To some, 2016 may be remembered as the year of the panda: despite being under threat of extinction for many years, China’s adorable mascot made headlines across the world following its removal from the IUCN’s red list, no longer being classified as ‘endangered’ but rather, ‘vulnerable’.
While the term ‘vulnerable’ in no means describes the species as being safe, this change in status was met with a collective sigh of relief. The giant panda has been alarmingly close to the brink of extinction for decades, but thanks to numerous conservation efforts (and a shift in attitudes throughout China itself), the species has miraculously avoided what many had thought to be a certain, cataclysmic fate.
But just how has the species managed to survive? After all, a historical decrease in populations has long been thought to have been part of an irreversible trend. Loss of habitat, a lack of food sources, and even human activity (such as poaching and excessive tourism) should have, surely, sealed the panda’s fate long ago, putting the bear in the same tragic predicament of the black rhinoceros, the quagga, and the Tasmanian tiger. However, the panda has defied all odds in its bid for survival…owing a certain amount of thanks to conservation carried out in its endemic home.
China has long since been a controversial country: oftentimes blurring the lines between cultural differences and outright cruelty, the relationship this nation has had with its animals over the years can be considered questionable, to say the very least. Putting the notion of hypocrisy to one side (‘what makes the life of a cow worth less than that of a dog?), attitudes towards nature have long since been unforgiving. Dog meat festivals see what we know to be as ‘man’s best friend’ tortured for pleasure, and market stalls sell poached ivory as aphrodisiacs and medicine, despite a lack of scientific evidence to support any supposed value of these items at all. But while China’s collective, historical regard for nature is arguably dubious, our global scrutiny (valid as it may be) often forbids us from witnessing a shift in philosophy, and indeed a positive, nation-wide change in attitudes.
Today, pandas are appreciated and well-loved across the world – a simple search for these bumbling bears on Youtube will bring up millions of results; each video adorned with countless comments of adoration and affection – but the value of these bears has not always been so blatantly measured. As recently as the last century, pandas have been sold or given away as pets to affluent Westerners (see: fashion designer Ruth Harkness and her panda cub, Su Lin) and, worse, they were even killed for their pelts. Around this time, the protection of pandas was never paramount, with the Chinese authorities failing to understand the rarity of this species. Between the years of 1936 and 1979, panda populations began to fall drastically.
At the turn of the 80’s, however, conservationists signaled for a change. Recognising the expansion of human populations and the consequential loss of bamboo forests (and therefore, the loss of habitats for the species), the Chinese government contacted the WWF in the hopes of devising a plan to protect the native panda species. The outlook for the animal was, at that point, dismal - only 1,000 or so pandas were around at the time, and this number was ever on the decrease. Together, the WWF and the Chinese Ministry of Forestry resolved to reverse the trend…and as part of their mission, the Chengdu Panda Base was born.
Established in 1987, the Chengdu Panda Base was one of several conservation centres authorised and supported by China’s government. Its location was both obvious and curious: despite being an ancestral homeland to pandas since ancient times (and indeed being the only place in the world that is home to both captive and wild pandas), Chengdu wasn’t always the flourishing panda habitat that it is known as today. In fact, the region’s mountain ranges were considered a struggling habitat in the 1980’s, with natural food sources withering and dying, resulting in the tragic deaths of 250 starved pandas. Professionals as the newly-founded base worked hard to rescue any remaining pandas in the region, taking the emaciated bears in and providing them with life-saving medical treatment. In all, the team were able to save a total of 63 pandas, providing vital rehabilitation for the animals and eventually re-releasing a healthy majority of them back into the wild.
Half a dozen of these rescued pandas were kept behind due to their condition: three females (named Mei Mei, Guo Guo and Su Su), and three males (Qiang Qiang, Chuan Chuan, and ‘number 6.’) And it is this small group of pandas that would soon become legendary residents of Chengdu Panda Base, as without them, a number of advancements towards the survival of the species would not have been possible – and the overall panda population as we know it today, may not have had the opportunity to thrive. (One of these pandas, Mei Mei, would go on to become particularly legendary…but more on her later!)
The first advancement made at the Chengdu Panda Base was the development of artificial insemination. While artificial methods may seem a little odd to some people, pandas are notoriously challenging to breed – panda pairings are, first of all, hard to come by; and when it comes to conception (and the carrying of unborn cubs), the process is often wrought with issues from the start. In short: without the involvement of science, pandas are seldom able to conceive or carry young at all, which could well have led to the extinction of the species decades ago.
The first successful artificial insemination of a panda was carried out in 1980, with a method which used frozen granule sperms. The ultra-low temperature resulted in improved motility for the sperm by nearly 30 percent which, as a result, allowed the first female panda to become pregnant. Since this breakthrough, the focus shifted to issues of ovulation regularity for the females (another troublesome area for panda breeding is that the females breed only once a year, in the spring, within a window of about 24 hours); this took a great deal of attention during monitoring of the bears, gaining understanding of their behaviour patterns and levels of both oestrogen and progesterone. After successes in both of the above areas, the number of baby panda cubs had already greatly improved.
Of course, there were other areas of important work to be done, if these young pandas were able to continue to survive. Many mother pandas are unable to carry their cubs to full term, and others will sadly lose their babies due to illness or malnourishment shortly after birth. As such, the Chengdu Panda Base committed much of their time in the 90’s to solving these issues, developing new technologies and theses to enable the cubs to survive. Their work eventually won them second prize in the National Science and Technology Awards, but the real reward came via the increased survival rates amongst young pandas. To help these panda cubs, scientists at the base had to examine the mother panda’s milk producing abilities – particularly in the case of twins, mother pandas have long since struggled to provide enough milk, which in turn would lead to the malnourishment and even starvation of their young. In nature, mother pandas will (willingly) sacrifice one of their young to provide solely for the other, but this is something the Panda Base could not stand to see. Instead, the team at the base would try a combination of techniques to provide support for the pandas: first they would switch the cubs back and forth without the mother’s knowledge, so that she would unknowingly be providing for both cubs; the other technique was to provide better nutrition supplements in the form of corn bread and fruit, allowing the mother to produce more milk (and, where necessary, scientists would then collect this milk to provide the cubs themselves.) As a result the survival rates of panda cubs has increased year on year, from an initial 70% increase to over 90% today. In addition to this, the Panda Base is responsible for the healthy birth and survival of the lightest panda cub on record – at a miniscule 51 grams at birth, this particular cub was around half the weight of any other newborn panda, and therefore around the same weight of about half an apple!
Other areas of success at the Panda Base include prevention of detrimental diseases and health issues typical of sickly bears (such as chronic diarrhea, ascariasis, hemorrhagic enteritis and even canine distemper); the development of paternity tests for pandas; a focus on education for both tourists and native locals; and successful behavioural therapies which even resulted in a panda cub named Shi Shi being born to pandas that mated naturally – a huge step forward for the species as a whole. Of course, what makes the Chengdu Panda Base so renowned across the globe, is its ability to rear healthy panda cubs. The base alone has contributed massively to panda numbers around the world, with 124 successful panda births taking place from within the centre…and from outside of the centre, too!
This brings us back to Mei Mei, the aforementioned ‘legendary’ panda who is perhaps better known to the people of her native Chengdu as the ‘hero mother.’ Since the base’s establishment, there have only been two pandas more successful in birthing than Mei Mei (that title goes to both Qing Qing and Yaya, who together made history by birthing 13 newborn cubs across 9 births within the Panda Base); however, Mei Mei is so well-known due to her success with birthing cubs between 2006 and 2011. This time period is remembered as being the base’s most fruitful time for new panda births, as Mei Mei successfully managed to give birth to 11 newborns across 7 pregnancies. That’s a lot of pandas across a 5-year period, and quite a miracle for the Panda Base! Outside of the base, success remained just as strong: for example, Zoo Atlanta is now home to two giant pandas named Yang Yang and Lun Lun (originally from the Panda Base), who have produced five healthy off-spring since 2006. Without the advancements made at the base back in Chengdu, who knows if these two pandas would have been able to have such continued success in their pregnancies.
Thanks to a seemingly never-ending list of breakthroughs and successful panda births, the Chengdu Panda Base has truly earned its place as the authority on panda conservation and breeding. Its prominence in the world of both conservation and eco-tourism ensures that a focus on care for pandas is near-paramount throughout China and, as a result, could well have played a part in the shifting attitudes towards animals across the nation. After all, pandas are considered something as an ambassador for the country: the black and white image of the bear is almost as synonymous with China as, say, the Great Wall or the Terracotta Warriors. Such a lovable mascot ensures a certain amount of interest and attention for China, and with this too comes a heightened concern for the treatment of other animals across the country. While it cannot be confirmed that China’s positive contribution towards panda conservation links back to a positive shift in attitudes at all, it would make sense – without a positive image to put out to the world, tourists would surely have less of an interest in the country as a whole, and as voices across the world shout for China to give as much consideration to all animals as they do to pandas, it may only be a matter of time until the country is a safe place for all animals.
You can visit the Chengdu Panda Base as part of your time on the Panda Volunteer Experience in China. Why not head to our project page now to find out more?
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