WWF’s policy on captive breeding is that: “The productive management of captive pandas would be helpful in ensuring the long-term survival of the species. All potential breeding animals in captivity should be included in an integrated programme, whose main aim should be to provide animals for re-introduction into the wild. WWF urges all institutions in the world which currently hold pandas to contribute fully to this breeding programme.”
There are currently 23 pandas at the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda in Wolong and an estimated total of 103 animals in captivity worldwide. Along with fieldwork, Chinese scientists have worked continuously to improve the success rate of captive breeding of the Giant Pandas.
This has proved to be quite a challenge, all the more so since pandas are only receptive to breeding for a very brief period in late spring or early summer. Research efforts have, however, paid off. Since 1991 natural mating has resulted in eight births at the Wolong centre.
In addition to experience gained over the years at Wolong, the recent success of births can be attributed to improved cooperation between China’s Ministry of Forestry and the country’s zoos involved in panda breeding, as well as to an exchange of information and technology between Chinese and western scientists.
Some problems are, however, still experienced with animal husbandry, particularly the care and welfare of infants. Disease and rejection by the mother have been the main cause of death among cubs.
Investigation of these, and other aspects of panda reproduction, now form an active part of the ongoing research programme.
The main threats to the Giant Panda are habitat destruction and poaching. Young animals are caught for zoos, and adults are killed for their pelts which are used to make coats and sleeping mats. These mats are claimed to allow the sleeper to predict the future, and to keep away ghosts.6 Although capital punishment has been introduced for poachers, illegal hunting continues. A single Giant Panda pelt can sell for US $100,000 on the black market.
3 Panda meat is unpalatable and hence little subsistence hunting occurs. Many hunters set snares for deer and other animals, especially Musk Deer, and at least one incidental Giant Panda death has been documented.6 Although illegal, such snaring occurs inside as well as outside the reserve system.
Available Giant Panda habitat has been severely reduced by logging and forest clearance for agricultural settlement. In the Sichuan Province, where the majority of Giant Pandas live, satellite mapping and surveys completed in 1974/5 and 1985/8 revealed that the area of habitat occupied by pandas had been reduced from over 20,000 km2 to only 10,000 km2; a similar rate of decline exists in Gansu and Shaanxi.5
During the late eighties, pandas suffered high mortality due to the flowering, seeding and die-back of bamboo over wide areas.
This is a natural phenomenon, which may happen every 30 to 80 years, but its effects are exacerbated by the restrictions that increased human settlement have placed on Panda movements. Giant Pandas are now unable to disperse to other areas of suitable habitat in times of food shortage, and many have died of starvation. In the Wanglang Reserve, a population estimated at 196 individuals in 1969 had been reduced to only 10-20 by 1980 because of lack of food.5 Bamboo die-off may however have been an important feature of the species’ population dynamics, with enforced emigration promoting out-breeding and maintenance of a healthy population. The small, isolated populations of Giant Panda which remain may be threatened by in-breeding, which is liable to reduce reproduction rate, fertility and survival of young.7
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Anon. 1990. Panda Research. International Bear News, Vol. 90 (3), No. 1.
3. Mills, J. 1992. Milking the bear trade. International Wildlife, 22 (3): 38-45.
Jien, G. 1991. Ailuropoda melanoleuca. IUCN/SSC Bear Specialist Group Newsletter, No. 2., February 1991.
5. Menghu, W. and Tieqin, H. (eds.). 1989.
National Conservation Management Plan for the Giant Panda and its Habitat: Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu Provinces, The People’s .