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June 23, 2010

Pandas, Pandas and More Pandas Part 2

Tom McLaughlin

Ya’an Bifeng Xia, China – The introduction of the panda into wild was the topic of my conversation with Dr. Tang Chunxiang, director and professor of the Ya’an Bifeng Xia (Green Mountain Valley) of China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, about 150 km from Chengdu, China. Dr. Tang was gracious enough to grant me time from of a very busy schedule.


I had sought the appointment in order to help the reintroduction of the Sun Bear at the Matang Research Center near Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia, where I live. I was hoping we could get some ideas on what worked and, most importantly, what didn’t work, in the efforts with the panda.


The Matang center had acquired nine sun bears and efforts are underway to attempt to place them on their own in a conservation reserve. These animals had been in human contact for several years and the desire was to return to a semi-wild state.


Both the sun bear and the panda have had dismal records in attempts to increase their population through human intervention. Zoo’s had failed and now the thinking had evolved that placing them in a semi-wild situation may enhance their chances.


It will be the first attempt to return the sun bear to the semi-wild. A peninsula surrounded by water would be turned into an island and, after conditioning, the animals released. They would be observed very closely for two or three years, hopefully by university doctoral candidates.


The first stag – to stop all human contact but very gradually and to teach them survival skills – has already been completed with selected individuals. At first, at both Matang and Green Valley, the bears had to learn to climb trees. But, no bear is going to shimmy up a tree unless he has a good reason. Therefore, a pulley and bucket system was devised and food hauled up every day. In the case of the sun bears, jungle fruits, and for the pandas, bamboo. In both cases, the candidates performed successfully.


The panda was placed in a fenced enclosure of about 300,000 square meters with ample bamboo and water. A radio collar was attached. Food was human fed but at first they distributed the bamboo at the same place only to have the panda waiting. They had to place the bamboo in different locations around the enclosure, difficult in this hilly and mountainous terrain. This, it was hoped, would teach them to search for food.


As the food was withdrawn, the pandas lost 33% of their weight. This was expected but not to that degree. The digestive system also stopped. This should not have happened because the food available in the wild was the same as fed in captivity.


Leeches and ticks became a major problem. The newly released bears became covered with these parasites, while wild pandas had none, or very few. Was there something in the wild that they ate that was not available in the human-provided food? Did wild pandas learn to avoid tick and leech infected areas?


Pandas also have a problem with defense. Their only protection from attacks by wild dogs and leopards, not considered when released, are climbing trees. But, how do you teach a panda born in captivity that a wild dog or leopard is dangerous? Stuff one and have it bark via recording?


Wild pandas will not accept the newly released pandas into their areas. Fights have erupted in which the new panda has been killed. Again, how do you teach a panda born in captivity to defend itself from its own kind?


These and many other questions, including is it worth it to try to release pandas back to semi-wild state, need further research that will take years to answer. The exchange information between Dr. Tang and individuals at the Matang center will share clues as these efforts continue.


…life is good


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