Wolong Panda Reserve was established on March 18, 1963 in Sichuan, China. On its anniversary this year, it is a good time to examine the progress of panda conservation in China and in the world in the past 51 years, the cost of bamboo and the future of panda.
The panda is the rarest member of the bear family. An adult panda is more than four feet long and weighs 220 to 330 pounds. Their main habitat is temperate broadleaf and mixed forests of Southwest China in the Yangtze Basin. They play an important role in the bamboo forest by spreading seeds and facilitating growth of vegetation. Dwarf blue sheep, multi-colored pheasants and other endangered species such as the golden monkey, takins and crested ibis are neighbors of this excellent tree-climber. The Yangtze Basin region is also the geographic and economic hearts of China. Forest fragmentation due to increasing presence of roads and railroads isolates panda population and prevents mating. Habitat loss due to forest destruction reduces the bamboo supply.
Pandas owe their existence today largely to their adorable looks. If they were left alone, they would have died out long ago due to their picky eating habits and low reproduction rate.
Ancient pandas used to be carnivores and were widespread in many parts of East Asia. Smaller than the modern panda, they relied on small animals, insects, wild fruits and tender branches from trees. The switch of their diet to bamboo was caused by changes in the environment and evolution. Using their enlarged wrist bones as opposable thumbs, they consume 26 to 84 pounds of bamboo every day by. After all the hard work of almost consistent eating food with little nutrients, pandas rarely are energetic.
This picky eating habit not only highly limits their habitat, but also leaves panda very vulnerable to starvation when bamboos flower then die on large scale. There were two such incidents, around 1974 and 1983, respectively, causing the death of over 200 pandas. This kind of bamboo flowering follows a natural cycle of about 10 years and pandas usually would migrate to new areas with non-flowering bamboo to survive.
Male pandas in captivity usually show no interests in mating. Over the years, there were only a few male pandas, out of hundreds, participated in natural reproduction. In the wild, scientists have observed repeatedly that male pandas fought for the mating rights during their annual gathering season of April and May. The wild population is around 1,600. No help from human seems to be able to substitute the natural environment in ensuring the continuous survival of panda. On the 51 anniversary of Wolong Panda Reserve in China, the challenge is how to achieve this, while the cost of bamboo is the easiest part of it.
The cost for pandas is high. They used to be given away free of charge as cuddly ambassadors, but since the 1980s, pandas have been exchanged for hefty conservation fees and trade deals. Mating pairs cost $1 million per year and a cub is $600,000. Research and habitat are another huge expense. For example, the Smithsonian spends about $2.6 million a year on its panda project, $55,000 of which is for bamboo alone.
Atlanta, Memphis, San Diego and Washington are the four zoos in U.S. with pandas. They bargained in 2008 for cheaper rates and longer loans, which brought the fees down to $550,000 a year. The 2008 Sichuan earthquake was a reminder to China that its pandas need more safe places.
After Wolong Panda Reserve was built, China has added more reserves throughout the years. Now there are more than 50 panda reserves covering 61 percent of the panda population, and heavy investment has been made in reproduction research and the program to release captive pandas into the wild. Despite these efforts, the number of wild panda has not seen obvious increase. In some areas the density of panda population even decreased. The loss and fragmentation of habitat is still a major issue threatening the survival of panda. One of the many organizations working with China in the panda conservation is the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF,) which was established in 1961 and adopted its panda logo that year. WWF has been working on creating green corridors to link isolated panda populations, patrolling against poaching, illegal logging and encroachment and helping local communities better manage relationships with panda.
The “panda cam” in Smithsoniam’s National Zoo attracted over 10 million viewers for its new baby panda Bao Bao between last August and this January, before the public met Bao Bao. The membership of the zoo increased 18 percent. Such popularity of the panda is unlikely to wane anytime soon. Hopefully, it will materialize into enough investment to cover more of reserve regions and bamboo costs in China and worldwide, resulting in higher numbers of wild panda on next anniversary of Wolong Panda Reserve.
By Tina Zhang