Can Giant Pandas Return to the Wild?

The species’ population has been rebounding, thanks to China’s captive-breeding program. The challenge now is returning giant pandas to their native habitat.

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Giant pandas in the wild
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Meet the Giant Pandas

I crouch low in the grass to get a closer look at the animal lurching toward me. She’s about four months old, the size of a soccer ball, slightly bug-eyed and no doubt soft and fragrant as a puppy. The urge to scoop her up and squeeze her is overwhelming.

That adorability is one reason why the giant panda is an international sensation, as well as a cultural icon and an economic gold mine in China. Now the world is watching China’s dogged attempt to keep giant pandas on the map.

Like many species, giant pandas have declined as a growing human population has grabbed wild lands for its own uses. But since 1990, when the species was labelled endangered, the Chinese have perfected breeding methods and built a captive population hundreds strong.

What comes next in this bear’s conservation may determine whether the giant panda becomes a relic behind bars or roams free in the wild.

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Giant pandas love bamboo
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Saving Giant Pandas: It Starts With Good Breeding

To satisfy their love for bamboo, which represents 99 per cent of their food, giant pandas used to range across southern and eastern China and northern Myanmar and Vietnam. Now they’re only found in patchy mountain habitat in China, in perhaps one per cent of their historic territory.

The Chinese government’s most recent panda survey, from 2014, reported 1,864 giant pandas in the wild, 17 per cent more than in 2003. But Marc Brody, who founded the conservation non-profit Panda Mountain, warns that it’s tough to trust any specific figures. “We may just be getting better at counting pandas,” he says.

In the meantime, the Chinese are furiously breeding their iconic bear in captivity. Up until the late 1990s, there were a lot of failed attempts, both at breeding and at keeping cubs alive.

With assistance from abroad, the Chinese turned things around. David Wildt, of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, was part of the international team that first worked with Chinese scientists on panda biology and husbandry. “Pretty soon they had piles of baby pandas,” he says. “In a sense we trained ourselves right out of a job.”

Much of the action happens at Bifengxia Panda Base, or BFX, where I had my close-up with cubs. Visitors here can see adult giant pandas in outdoor yards—hunched over broad bellies and chomping messily on long bamboo stalks from enormous piles delivered several times a day.

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Captive breeding of giant pandas
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Making Giant Pandas Make Babies

Up a hill from these exhibits lies the staff-only building, where giant pandas in the breeding program reside. Typically there is a female panda in each enclosure, sometimes with a cub in her arms.

“Even after many years, whenever a panda is pregnant or gives birth here, everyone is so joyful and excited,” veteran keeper Zhang Xin told me. “We look every day at the adults, the babies, how much they are eating, what their poo looks like, if their spirit is good. We just want them to be healthy.”

In this setting, little about panda production is natural. Dropping a male in with a female can even lead to aggression instead of mating. To set the mood, breeders in China have tried “panda porn”—videos of pandas mating—mostly for the encouraging sounds; apples on sticks to tempt males into mounting position; Chinese herbs; and even Viagra and sex toys. Zhang Hemin, executive director of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, which oversees BFX and two other panda bases, recalls an awkward shopping trip to an “adult toy store” in Chengdu. “I had to ask for a receipt to submit to the government for reimbursement,” he told me.

Now protocol includes artificial insemination. Part of the challenge is that female giant pandas are fertile just once a year for only 24 to 72 hours. Endocrinologists monitor hormones in the urine that can predict ovulation and may inseminate several times to boost the chances of implantation.

Then, for months, females keep the keepers guessing. “It’s hard to know if a panda is pregnant,” says BFX’s director, Zhang Guiquan. “The fetus is so tiny that it’s easy to miss on an ultrasound.” Giant pandas can have delayed implantation, extremely varied gestation times and quiet miscarriages.

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Giant panda cubs
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Welcome to the Cub Club

This massive captive-breeding effort might suggest that giant pandas are simply sexually inept. Not so. For millions of years wild bears have done the deed without human intervention, based on natural cycles, scent marking, mating calls and complex social relationships that are mostly missing in captivity.

“What we are asking them to do—basically have sex in a phone booth with a crowd of people watching—has little to do with real panda reproduction,” says Smithsonian ecologist William McShea.

Still, the researchers are getting big results. Thirty-eight cubs were born in China in 2015. (BFX produced 18 of them, its highest number yet.) In the panda kindergarten building at the centre of BFX is the immaculate incubator room, where the cubs, when not with mama or a surrogate mother bear, get 24-hour human care.

Visitors outside press their noses and cameras against the incubator room window, oohing and aahing over five fluffballs in baskets on the floor. Some of the cubs are napping; others are wide-eyed and wiggly, squeaking like dog toys.

Liu Juan, petite and shy behind square-rimmed glasses, is working a 24-hour shift, her second one that week. She has a toddler son who stays at home with family. “This job is intense,” she says of mothering the pandas, “but I love being with them.”

Incubating the newborns, bottle feeding, rocking, burping, responding to their bleats for attention, weighing, measuring, rubbing bellies to stimulate the gut and keeping toddlers from wandering—“the work is non-stop, a crazy amount,” says Liu. Her puffy orange slippers make a shushing sound across the floor as she chases an escapee. “My body never recovers. I’ve lost hair from being under so much stress.” There is massive pressure, she says, to keep the cubs alive: “They are so important to China.”

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Introducing wild pandas to the wild
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Bringing Giant Pandas Into the Wild

Most giant pandas at BFX will spend their lives in captivity, in China or in zoos abroad. But elsewhere in Sichuan Province, researchers have a much wilder future in mind for baby bears.

Hetaoping, a panda base within the Wolong Nature Reserve, is a series of stone and concrete buildings socked into a valley of the Qionglai Shan Mountains. Since 1980, the Chinese have been working here with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the first Western organization to co-operate on pandas with the government. The WWF sent renowned biologist George Schaller to conduct research that became the basis for what we know of giant pandas today.

Zhang Hemin worked with Schaller in the field. “It was then that I learned to deeply love the panda,” he told me. Zhang had a favourite bear, a curious female who stole his food one snowy night before taking over his tent. “She used it for months, coming back each night, leaving me gifts of feces in my bed.”

These days, select cubs are trained for life in the wild at Hetaoping. Keepers wear panda costumes scented with panda urine so young bears don’t get used to humans. A cub here remains with its mother and is eased toward wildness. After a year or so, the pair is moved to a large, fenced-in habitat up the mountain where the mother can continue coaching her offspring. To qualify for release, Zhang explained, a young panda must be independent; wary of other animals, including humans; and capable of finding food and shelter unaided.

Adequate habitat for the bears’ release is a concern. Since the 1970s the Chinese have gone from 12 to 67 panda reserves. But many are very small, populated by villagers and cut up by roads, farms and other human constructions. More than a third of wild pandas live or venture beyond reserves’ invisible boundaries, says the Smithsonian’s McShea, where habitat may be marginal.

On a positive note, “poaching isn’t a problem here—nobody is touching pandas,” McShea says. (Hunting pandas was legal in China until the 1960s; now killing one could mean 20 years in prison.)

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Reclaiming land for giant pandas
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Reclaiming Land for Giant Pandas

A massive earthquake in 2008, which destroyed part of Hetaoping and was estimated to have killed 90,000 people, gave the government fodder to persuade villagers living in bear habitat to move. Officials built a series of lowland villages to house many of the displaced. But some refuse to let go of their old life. Li Shufang, a 76-year-old woman I visited in the simple home she shares with relatives, walks several hours a day, up and down the mountain, to tend to pigs and a garden where the family lived before the quake. When I asked how she felt about making way for giant pandas, she spat back in a local dialect, “Why didn’t they move the pandas instead?”

To turn the reclaimed land into bear habitat, locals are hired to plant seedlings where forests were diminished by logging or quake damage. But the mountainous terrain makes it hard to plant on a large scale, so the landscape remains fragmented, which means the panda populations do too.

Barney Long, director of species conservation at Global Wildlife Conservation, says that only nine of some 33 panda subpopulations have enough animals to persist long term. Climate-change models warn that in the next 70 years, warming could reduce the remaining giant panda habitat by nearly 60 per cent. At least for now, rebuilding, connecting and protecting habitat may be the best focus for panda conservation.

Of the five bears released since 2006, all wearing tracking collars, three are still out there. Two were found dead, one probably the victim of aggression from wild male pandas. Like breeding, rewilding the animals “will take trial and error, time and money,” McShea says. “But the Chinese will be successful.”

Zhang Hemin is similarly confident: “I’ve had two important jobs in my life so far: to get pandas breeding, which is now no problem. Now we have to make sure there’s good habitat and then put pandas in it.”

And once they’re running free and ready to mate? “We hope they like each other, but we can’t interfere,” says Hetaoping keeper Yang Changjiang. “What comes next will be up to them.”

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A new world for giant pandas
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A New World for Giant Pandas

Over four days in November 2015, a Wolong cub named Hua Jiao (Delicate Beauty) is caught, given a final health check, fitted with a collar, crated and driven over 300 kilometres to the Liziping Nature Reserve. It has good bear habitat and a small panda population ripe for a new member.

Under a bright blue sky, four men position Hua Jiao’s cage facing the forest. Without fanfare, a keeper unlatches the door. At first the young panda stays put at the back of the crate, munching bamboo, her last captive meal. After today she’ll fend for herself in every way. In a few years she may seek a mate and could add five or more cubs to the population over her lifetime. It’s not a game-changing number, but for an endangered species with fewer than 2,000 animals in the wild, every individual counts.

Finally, with some coaxing from the keepers, Hua Jiao emerges, blinking into the light. And then, without a glance back at her captors, she lopes toward freedom.

National Geographic (August 2016). Copyright © National Geographic creative,

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