Saving the Giant Pandas From Extinction

The habitats of pandas are decreasing due to China’s increasing population density. As China continues to grow, the places where pandas are able to live shrink, while food also becomes increasingly scarce. Researchers say that in the next 80 years, around 35 percent of bamboo will be eliminated due to climate change.

Two giant panda research facilities in Hetaoping and Chengdu are working to prevent these special and unique bears from going extinct. A panda, named Quian Quian, got sick and would have died if she was not rescued. Zhang Hemin, a researcher, said, “If we don’t help them, they’ll be extinct within the next 30 to 50 years.” Scientists have created a return-to-nature program that they hope will save pandas from extinction. Cao Cao, a 16-year-old panda living at the Hetaoping Wilderness Training base, is a mother of nine. She gave birth to the first twins born by a wild male and female. She was sent back into the wild to mate.

Cao Cao was 13 months old before she was taken into captivity in Sichuan. Tao Tao, a male cub, and son of Cao Cao, was sent into the wild in 2012. He has been taken back to the research base twice for health checks. He also received a new tracking collar. The researchers speculate that Tao Tao has become a father in the wild now, but in order to make sure, they will have to wait until the cub is an adult and can live on his own. This way they can take a DNA test to ensure that he is the father.

As for the care of Cao Cao’s twins, the keepers must swap them every two days to ensure that they both get an equal amount of care and milk from the mother. In the wild, if pandas have twins, oftentimes the mother will take care of one and abandon the other. This is why the researchers make sure to divide attention evenly. Eventually, Cao Cao will get released into the wild to mate with another wild panda. Until a potential mate arrives, the researchers will keep watch over her in the wild, even though it may take a long time.

The research facility, Hetaoping, takes measures to help the pandas in the base feel comfortable. The researchers put on panda suits and cover themselves in panda urine. This ensures that the pandas don't become dependent on humans.

Chengdu Research Base also helps pandas, but they use a different strategy. They don’t use panda suits and they directly train the animals to eat, climb trees, and to even find water so they can survive in the wild. Chengdu has, up until recently, not tried to minimize contact between the human researchers and their pandas.

The two centers released 11 pandas in total, and only three of them died.

After several panda deaths, the Chengdu facility has learned to take better care of its pandas. In the 1990s, the survival rate of newly born captive cubs was only 33 percent. The cubs often died due to malnutrition. The researchers wanted to save the pandas so they gave the little ones milk from cows, goats, and even humans. Eventually, however, they found out that milk from their mothers is the only milk that can keep them alive. This makes sense since mammals pass their immunity to many diseases through breast milk. On April 28, 2006, a panda named Xiang Xiang from the Chengdu base was released into the wild. Researchers thought this panda had mastered the skills in order to survive in the wild, but they soon realized they were wrong. In less than a year, Xiang Xiang had died. Researchers say that he either died from falling to his death or possibly by being attacked by wild animals.

Consequently, China initiated a make-or-break experiment putting captive pandas into the wild permanently to increase the small populations scattered in the six isolated mountainous regions. They are also making a five million acre conservation park to help expand the pandas home. The park is twice as large as the Yellowstone National Park, and the Bank of China is providing $1.1 billion to the project that should be done by 2023.

The greatest challenge for the scientists is to release the pandas into the wild and ensure they keep reproducing without needing any human help so they can become self-sustaining. Zhang from the Chengdu base said, “We spent almost 50 years to successfully breed pandas in captivity. Maybe it will take another 50 years to reintroduce captive pandas into the wild.” it will take this long because it’s hard to prepare captive pandas to survive all the dangers they will encounter in the wild.

[Source: Los Angeles Times]