Panda keeper Zhang Naicheng feeds the bears at a Chongqing zoo. Photo: VCG
Panda keeper Zhang Naicheng feeds a panda at a Chongqing zoo. Photo: VCG
Panda keeper Zhang Naicheng feeds the pandas at a Chongqing zoo. Photo: VCG
Though giant pandas are no longer technically endangered following China's extensive conservation efforts, the bears still face an uncertain future, namely whether or not they can return to the wild rather than stay a captive species.
Pandas were downgraded from "Endangered" to "Vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) after a nationwide census in 2016 discovered 1,864 pandas living in the wild in China, a 16.8 percent increase since the 2003 survey.
While more and more people, through live-streaming, are getting to know pandas as cute, captive-bred animals, wild pandas and rangers of their habitat are often neglected. Experts say the ultimate goal is to release captive-bred pandas into the wild, but how to carry that out goal remains a big question.
After the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding launched ipanda.com in 2013, a website that enables panda fans worldwide to watch round-the-clock live-streaming broadcasts of the bears, pandas became the latest online sensation. On Weibo, followers of ipanda.com, which uploads daily videos of panda cubs chomping on bamboo, playing in trees and tumbling in the grass, have surpassed the 4.9 million mark.
A video uploaded by ipanda.com last February showing a panda named Qiyi chasing his keeper for a hug was viewed over 50 million times on Weibo and 120 million times on Facebook. Even the keepers themselves are becoming internet-famous and regularly asked to pose for pictures by panda fans.
These pandas are the second- and third- generation that grew up in captivity since the Wolong National Nature Reserve started to captive breed pandas in the 1980s. Nationwide, the practice started even earlier, in the 1950s.
Hu Zhichu, an 89-year-old expert on giant pandas, said captive breeding was not intended to sustain the panda population, but only to meet the growing international curiosity and demand for the animal.
Since Soong May-ling, wife of Chiang Kai-shek, gifted a pair of giant pandas to the US on behalf of the government of the Republic of China (1912-49) in 1941, pandas have become China's most famous diplomatic gift.
After the founding of the People's Republic of China, 24 pandas were given to nine foreign countries as goodwill gestures. The most famous of these gifts were probably Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, two giant pandas given to the US as gifts after President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972.
In 1982, the government began to loan pandas to zoos around the world. By 1988, at least 30 American zoos and other international organizations were applying for panda loans. All these pandas were captured in the wild. Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, for example, had been captured in June and December of 1971.
The practice of keeping pandas in captivity, however, resulted in a decline in the overall number of wild giant pandas. In Baoxing county, for example, over 300 pandas were recorded during the first panda census in the early 1970s. Now there are only over 100.
"This is because, since the 1950s, 136 wild pandas have been held captive in Baoxing county, and most of them are cubs which are easy to capture," Hu said, reported Sanlian Life Week.
Until 1999, most of these captive giant pandas were not able to be artificially inseminated. Records from the Panda Studbook reveal that only 66 adult pandas (28 percent) in captivity are breeding and only 12 have been born in captivity.
Of all captive-born males, only two are reported to have ever mated and only 12 percent of captive-born pandas survive to one year. Newborn pandas often died at an early age, and in order to maintain the captive population, new wild pandas had to be captured.
Since 2000, due to breakthroughs in artificial insemination and cub rearing, the number of captive-bred pandas started to rise. "One benefit of successful artificial insemination is that wild giant pandas are no longer captured. Along with efforts to end poaching and protect panda habitat, the population of wild pandas began to grow," Hu said.
But captive breeding has many side effects. Under captive conditions, the animals' lack of enthusiasm about mating is exacerbated. Breeders have tried a number of measures to try to boost the sex drive of male pandas, including showing videos of other pandas making love, prescribing them Viagra and even giving them sex toys.
Pandas in Beijing Zoo, for example, lost their breeding capabilities and had to be shipped to Sichuan to be artificially inseminated. "Although captive-bred pandas resemble wild ones, they are actually quite different," Hu told Sanlian Life Week.
Close breeding is another issue threatening the health of pandas in captivity. More than a quarter of the world's captive-bred panda population are descended from the same male giant panda, Panpan, who was thought to have over 130 descendants.
Panpan died in December 28, 2016 as the oldest male giant panda in captivity. While he is considered a "hero" for populating China's panda species, he nevertheless exacerbates close breeding among pandas.
While captive-bred pandas and even their breeders are becoming stars online thanks to viral videos and live-streaming channels, wild protection stations are troubled by the lack of funding and lack of eligible experts to carry out further research in the wild.
China often offers generous funding for academic research on pandas and captive breeding projects. However, funding wild protection stations are comparatively lacking, according to employees working at these stations.
At Dengsheng Protection Station in Wolong National Nature Reserve, the highest protection station in Wolong with an altitude of 2,700 meters, 19 employees are in charge of patrolling and researching 80,000 hectares of mountains, valleys and rivers. Those who patrol the mountains receive a subsidy of 120 yuan ($19) per day, which many workers complain is too low.
Prior to 2008, the station had no access to electricity and workers had to make fire for warmth at night. Following the Wenchuan earthquake, workers at the station lived in makeshift shipping containers donated to them through charity programs. In recent years, after the Hong Kong government sponsored construction at the station, the employees finally had a place to live with stable electricity and even internet.
Having worked at Wolong for 30 years, Yang Jian, head of the Dengsheng Protection Station, said he has seen wild pandas only three times in his career. Real wild pandas, unlike captive ones, hide from humans once they smell their arrival; spotting one in the wilderness is a rare treat.
Even though wild pandas are difficult to find, workers must pay attention to every detail in the animal's habitat while also preventing illegal poaching, tree-cutting, herb-collecting and fire hazards.
These employees are also the heroes behind research projects like China's national panda census. In order to complete the census, workers at the station divide the area into dozens of grids, then search for and pick up panda feces in each grid, often enduring extreme climate conditions.
But only one-third of the workers have a college education. Most employees, while able to patrol the mountains, don't have expert knowledge to deal with the data they themselves have collected. While the station has been actively recruiting university graduates, many quit the job after only a year or two after finding the conditions to be too demanding.
"Apart from the Wolong, Tangjiahe and Wanglang nature reserves, many reserves only have several people watching the entire area," Hu said.
Fight with wild pandas
China started training giant pandas to live in the wild in 2003. The goal is to release them into their natural habitat to boost the wild population. Programs to re-introduce and integrate pandas into the wild have, however, proved to be quite difficult.
Xiang Xiang, which translates as "Auspicious," was selected for training at the age of 2. It was released back into its natural habitat at Wolong Nature Reserve for Giant Pandas in 2006, but was found dead in February of the following year.
Experts speculated that it might have fallen from a high place after getting into a fight with the original panda "residents" over food or territory.
"Living in the wild and in an artificial environment are each very different. In terms of food, wild pandas eat bamboo shoots in the spring, bamboo in the summer and bamboo leaves in the autumn. In an artificial environment, they can eat whatever they want. Such eating habits are hard to change," Hu said.
Hu said the most ideal method would be to ask an animal expert to train pandas in the wild, but its too difficult to put it in practice. A more practical way is to place a captive female panda in a half-wild environment and attract a wild male panda to mate with her. This will introduce wild panda genes; their offspring may turn out to be more accustomed to life in the wild. But how it turns out will depend on future experiments.