The International Giant Panda breeding program has been on for 30 years now. Why is it still facing so many challenges to date?
Though Giant Pandas may not be the most endangered species in the world, experts say sustainable steps need to be taken to ensure that these animals are protected from extinction.
These concerns are largely linked to the captive giant panda breeding program. In this program, the aim is to raise pandas and train them to survive in the wild. It started back in 1987 with six wild pandas. Since those pioneer bears were captured to date, the breeding program has raised more than 300 animals.
Unfortunately, only five 5 have been released into the wild. Out of that five, just 3 were able to survive on their own out there. Therefore, this represents a failure to experts. The general question now is whether the program is actually worth the investments or not.
Here are some of the major challenges that point to a potential fail in the giant panda breeding program:
The Major Challenges Of The Giant Panda Program
The Peculiar Reproductive Cycle Of The Panda Bear
A major problem with the giant panda breeding program is the tricky reproductive cycle of the black and white animals.
Female Pandas are on heat for only 72 hours a year. Because of that, they have a very limited period to get pregnant. Female animals in the program require very close attention during this period.
Caretakers monitor urine and other signs daily to determine the potential of the animals getting pregnant.
The Giant Pandas In Captivity Show Little Interest In Mating
Also, giant pandas are seemingly reluctant to mate in captivity. Typically, they are not easily aroused and this lack of interest makes the entire mating futile. This has made it difficult to get cubs through the natural reproductive method.
In fact, the animals are often fed with pills like Viagra just to increase arousal. Other measures like stimulated videos of pandas mating have yielded little result leaving the last resort of artificial insemination.
Female Pandas Don’t Appear To Make The Best Mothers
The peculiar nature of raising cubs is also another problem. Usually, a giant panda gives birth to twins who are pink in color, blind and toothless.
Unfortunately, the mother panda can take care of only one panda at a time so the weaker one is left to die. This phenomenon remains the same both in the wild and in the breeding centers. Scientists have developed a tactic of exchanging the cubs between their mother and the incubator.
They try to deceive the mother panda into taking care of the two cubs one at a time. When one cub is with the mother, the other is placed in the incubator. This tactic has increased the survival rate of the two cubs but there is no guarantee that both will grow up to adulthood.
Most Captive Pandas Are Unable To Survive In The Wild
This has got to be the most critical problem of the giant panda breeding program.
How do these pandas survive out in the wild when they meet their own kind or even worse, face predators such as leopards?
For instance, the story of Xiang Xiang comes to mind. Xiang Xiang was the first captive-bred giant panda released in the wild back in 2009.
Despite several efforts to monitor him, he was found dead just ten months later. It appears he had a fight with the wild pandas and may have somehow fallen off a tree after they chased him relentlessly.
This incident was a serious embarrassment for Chinese authorities and they tried to keep it hidden for moths. This kind of scenario explains why some observers call captive pandas “caricatures.” They know little to nothing about how to survive and defend themselves in the wild.
Observers describe captive Giant Pandas as “caricatures” since they can’t survive in the wild on their own.
Their Natural Habitat Is Still Under Threat
Even if all the pandas in captivity were returned today, where would they go and be safe?
Before the development boom in China, the giant panda’s native habitat used to be a wide and almost endless stretch of bamboo forests. This forest stretched all the way from Burma, passed through Laos and Vietnam before entering southwest China.
Today, there are efforts to partially restore much of this habitat after decades of encroachment from human activities and developments like road construction, mining, and farming. The frequent entry of tourists into the area also doesn’t help matters at all.
So Whats The Point of The Captive Giant Panda Breeding Program?
There is a lot of divided opinion on this subject. Some quarters are still of the opinion that not much has been achieved through the program. A lot of argument has been made as to whether conservation efforts for this animal should continue or not.
This group also thinks the investment in saving pandas can achieve more for other other near extinct animals such as the Ethiopian wolves.
On the other hand, die-hard panda lovers say that even if the program hasn’t achieved it’s aim, it’s saving this creature from complete extinction.
Some conservationists are also of the opinion that the main problem is not the risk of extinction of the giant pandas. According to them, the real issue is the alarming rate at which the home of the animals is being destroyed. As mentioned before, large sections of the bamboo rain forest have been destroyed.
A destruction of their home means a reduction in their chances of their survival even in the wild.
So Many Questions But Very Few Answers
Going forward, all parties that are actively involved in panda conservation need to consider the following:
There are several pandas in captivity but is there a home for them in the wild?
Will a time come when the number of pandas in captivity exceeds those in the wild?
Also, will the captive giant panda breeding program eventually have any impact on the conservation of these bears?
For now, we must remember that this animal remains the most recognized species in terms of international conservation attempts. In fact, this animal is regarded as the icon of conservation. Added to that is the fact that saving the panda also saves so many other creatures living in the same habitat.
Time, and better planning, will tell if these captive-bred bears can ever survive beyond the confines of a zoo.
And in the words of Dr. Sarah Bexell, director of Conservation Education at Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding – “If we can’t save our beloved wild panda, then what hope is there for the rest of the world’s animals – and even mankind?