The Chinese eat pandas

China: freedom for the pandas

Summary: They are the darlings of zoos and toy stores around the world: giant pandas. In their natural habitat in China, the animals are threatened with extinction. In the Wolong nature reserve in the southwest of the country, researchers are successfully breeding giant pandas and trying to reintroduce the bears to save the wild population. If the project fails, the bears will soon only be seen in zoos.

I duck deeper into the grass and watch the black and white ball of fur tapping towards me: a female panda, only four months old. It's the size of a soccer ball, has googly eyes, and probably smells like a baby. I would love to cuddle the little one.

The Bifengxia panda station in central China, where I get to watch the bear girl up close, is one of the places where the future of Ailuropoda melanoleuca decides (and a happy ending is not guaranteed). Bifengxia looks like a mixture of a zoo and a laboratory. Visitors can watch giant pandas sitting comfortably in the outdoor enclosure and eating mountains of bamboo branches.

The panda breeding program is located in another facility, to which only employees have access. A kind of high-security wing, the enclosures are secured with concrete walls, the doors are reinforced with iron bars. Each door leads to an outside area in which a female panda lives - some have a cub in their arms. 18 giant pandas were born in Bifengxia in 2015, more than any year before. In all of China there were even 38 boys. And the biologists, carers and reproductive experts are working to keep the birth rate rising.

The giant pandas are the pop stars of the animal kingdom. The fluffy clumsiness and voracious idlers are the favorites in zoos and toy shops all over the world. And in the only country where they still exist in the wild, their importance is even greater: In China, the panda bear is a national symbol, a cultural icon and an important source of income. No wonder the government is doing everything it can to save one of the most endangered animal species on earth from extinction.

The number of giant pandas is falling as humans penetrate deeper and deeper into their natural habitat. The panda bear has been on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature IUCN since 1990. Since then, the Chinese have perfected the breeding methods and built up a population of several hundred specimens that live in zoos and research institutes. But raising some animals in captivity and presenting them to an astonished crowd does not yet ensure the survival of the species in their natural habitat. In a next step, scientists want to reintroduce the pandas and thus increase the free-living populations. If the project fails, the giant panda is doomed to live behind bars forever.

Pandas are masters of adaptation. "We humans are used to changing our environment according to our needs," says Zhang Hemin, head of the Chinese conservation and research center for the giant panda. The bears, on the other hand, have adapted to a very specific environment over time and due to certain necessities. It is true that pandas, like their carnivorous relatives, have sharp fangs that they could use to tear flesh and enzymes that enable meat to be digested (their DNA shows that they actually belong to the family of real bears). Bone finds from a cave in China suggest the species as we know it is at least two million years old.

It is unclear when and why the pandas became vegetarians. But over the eons they have adapted to their new way of life. The modern panda has flattened molars for chopping up fibrous food, an extension of the carpal bone on both paws acts as a kind of thumb with which it can better grip bamboo branches. Interestingly, what it doesn't have are special intestinal bacteria that break down the bamboo, which makes up 99 percent of its food - one reason why pandas have relatively little energy. To get enough nutrients, they consume nine to 18 kilos of bamboo a day.

Pandas are not strictly vegetarians, they sometimes eat caterpillars or small vertebrates. But they prefer green stuff, especially if it grows under tall, old trees with hidden cavities in which to stow their young. The evolutionary specialization that used to give them a survival advantage is now proving counterproductive. Once they were widespread in southern and eastern China, in the north of Myanmar and in Vietnam, today they only find their preferred habitat in isolated Chinese mountain regions. 99 percent of their habitat has disappeared.

How many giant pandas are left in the world? Researchers first attempted to answer this question in the 1970s and estimated that there were around 2,500 wild pandas. Their numbers dropped dramatically in the 1980s, in part because of the periodic death of bamboo plants after flowering. Usually, pandas survive such ecological events by migrating to regions where there is more food. But if they can't find an alternative, they starve to death.

According to a survey by the Chinese government from 2014, 1,864 animals live in the wild - 17 percent more than in 2003. A positive development? NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC scholarship holder Marc Brody, who founded the non-profit organization Panda Mountain, warns not to trust the numbers too much: "Maybe we have just become better at counting pandas." It is also difficult to get numbers from different decades directly to compare, since the research areas and methods have changed again and again. Among other things, researchers today analyze DNA contained in panda feces.

Meanwhile, panda breeding is being intensified. After numerous setbacks in the early years, Chinese scientists succeeded in turning things around with foreign support at the end of the 20th century. David Wildt of the Smithsonian Institute for Conservation Biology was part of the team working on breeding pandas at the time. “We soon had a bunch of panda babies,” he says. The researchers also managed to breed pandas with high genetic diversity, which is not easy in small populations with a limited gene pool, but is crucial for the survival of a species.

If panda births used to be a sensation, they are now part of everyday life in Bifengxia. That is, almost. “Even after many years on the ward, everyone is excited and full of joy when a panda is pregnant and gives birth to a cub,” says zookeeper Zhang Xin, who himself has a rather bear-like stature. “We look after the adult animals and babies every day, checking how much they eat, what their droppings look like and whether they are in a good mood. We just want them to be healthy. "

In this environment, of course, reproduction is anything but natural. If you just lock males and females together like that, there will sometimes be fights instead of mating. To get the animals in the mood, the breeders showed them “panda porn” - videos of mating pandas. They tried to get the males to mount their partner with treats and experimented with Chinese herbs, Viagra and sex toys. Director Zhang Hemin, also known as "Papa Panda", recalls an embarrassing shopping trip to an "adult toy store" in Chengdu City.

The keepers cradle the young animals in their arms, give them the bottle and massage their stomachs until the bears make a little burrow.

“We told the seller that we needed a female genital stimulator that would also warm up,” he says. "Then I had to ask him for a bill to get the government reimbursed."

In panda breeding today, artificial insemination is used, in which one female sometimes also uses sperm from two males. However, the females are fertile only once a year for 24 to 72 hours. Endocrinologists therefore monitor the hormone levels in the animals' urine in order to predict ovulation and inseminate them several times on the corresponding days. This increases the chance that an egg will be fertilized and implanted in the uterus.

After that, the females leave their keepers in the dark for months. "It's hard to tell if a panda is pregnant," said assistant director Zhang Guiquan. “The fetus is so tiny that it can easily be overlooked on ultrasound.” In the case of the pandas, the implantation of the embryo can also be delayed, their hormone levels fluctuate unpredictably and miscarriages occur almost unnoticed.

Pandas, even if this is the case, are not sexual failures. For millions of years, the wild bears have finally reproduced without human assistance, guided by a natural cycle and their instincts. They followed scent markings, mating calls, and complex social relationships. Things that are largely absent in captivity. The artificial environment leads to stress in the animals - even if you cannot tell from them. "Basically, we ask them to mate in a phone booth while lots of people are watching," says Smithsonian Institution ecologist William McShea. "It has little to do with natural reproduction."

In the station's panda kindergarten, young animals that are weak or are not accepted by their mother are looked after by carers around the clock. You cradle them in your arms, give them the bottle, massage their stomachs until the bears bulge and watch out that none of the squeaking fur balls bust out of their basket.

Liu Juan, a petite woman with a shy look behind square glasses, is already doing her second 24-hour shift this week. Her young son stays home with the family while she mothered the pandas. “I really enjoy doing this job,” she says. “But my body never has time to recover. The stress leads to hair loss. ”There is enormous pressure to keep the boys alive. "You are so important to China."

Most Bifengxia pandas will spend their lives in captivity, in China or in overseas zoos. Researchers at other panda stations in Sichuan Province are working to reintroduce the bears.

Hetaoping, a traditional station in the Wolong National Park, is located in a valley in the Qionglai Mountains. At the end of the 1970s, the Chinese established a research base here on the wooded slopes. Since 1980 the scientists have been cooperating with the nature conservation foundation WWF, whose heraldic animal is the giant panda. On behalf of the WWF, the American zoologist George Schaller traveled to Hetaoping and carried out important basic research on which our current knowledge of the species is based. "Papa Panda" worked with Schaller in the field and learned to "love the panda with all my heart," as he explains. Zhang Hemin had a favorite animal at the time, a curious female who demolished his tea kettle, stole his food and occupied his tent. "It came back every night for months and left poop as a gift on my bed."

Today, selected animals are being prepared for life in the wild at the Hetaoping station. Keepers wear panda costumes that are “scented” with panda urine so that the young bears do not get too used to people. The young animals initially remain in the care of their mother. After about a year, they are both moved to a large, fenced-in habitat in the mountains, where the mother continues to train its offspring until the young are released. But that only happens if it meets certain criteria. Zhang Hemin explains that a bear must be independent and suspicious of other animals and people. And he must be able to find food and protect himself. Not all individuals are suitable for release into the wild.

Another problem is finding a new home for the bears. Since the 1970s, the number of panda reserves has increased from twelve to 67. But many of these protected areas are very small, inhabited and criss-crossed by roads. In addition, according to the ecologist McShea, a third of the wild pandas are outside the reserves, where suitable habitat is scarce. After all, the population keeps its distance from the animals. "Nobody touches pandas," says McShea. “They are an absolute taboo for poachers.” In China, panda hunting was legal until the 1960s; today, killing a bear is punishable by 20 years in prison.

A bigger problem is the livestock that graze in panda habitats. "Just like pandas, horses love rolling hills and bamboo forests," says Zhang Jindong from the University of China West Normal, who conducts research in Wolong. In 2012, the authorities ordered horses to be kept out of the panda forests and yaks to be bred instead. But these animals also drive the pandas away. Zhang Jindong sounds a little perplexed when he asks, "Where can you go?"

"Pandas are an absolute taboo for poachers," says ecologist McShea. Killing a bear carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

In 2008, tens of thousands of people died in a strong earthquake in the region. The disaster destroyed many houses in the mountains, including part of Hetaoping. After that, the government built villages in lower-lying areas and relocated the people. Li Shufang, a 75-year-old woman, now climbs and descends the mountain for several hours every day. Up there, where the family lived before the earthquake, they look after pigs and a garden. When I ask what it feels like to have to make room for animals, she hisses: "Why weren't the pandas relocated?"

In order to turn the reclaimed mountains into a bear habitat, local workers are planting young plants where forests have declined due to logging and earthquake damage. However, preference is given to fast-growing tree species whose roots prevent soil erosion, but which are not ideal for pandas. The most nutritious bamboo grows in the undergrowth of ancient primeval forests. The mountains around Hetaoping make large-scale afforestation difficult, which is why the forests remain fragmented. And the panda populations also remain separate from one another.

According to Barney Long, director of the wildlife conservation program at Global Wildlife Conservation, only nine out of 33 subpopulations of the giant panda are large enough to survive in the long term. Climate change will continue to worsen the situation. Simulation models show that the panda's habitat could be reduced by almost 60 percent over the next 70 years as a result of global warming. It is therefore more important than the number of pandas born to give the young bears a suitable home, says Marc Brody of the Panda Mountain organization.

The release into the wild has so far only been partially successful. Of the five pandas that have been released with a transmitter on their collar since 2006, only three are still alive. Two bears were found dead, one of them presumably fell victim to an aggressive conspecific. But every attempt also leads to the scientists understanding a little better how they can optimally prepare the bears for the wild reality.

Zhang Hemin is therefore confident: “Our main goal is to release animal by animal,” he says. “Getting pandas to reproduce is no longer a problem. But now we have to make sure that there are suitable habitats and bring the pandas there. ”The male panda Tao Tao (“ Little Rascal ”) has lived in freedom for four years and is able to reproduce. "We hope that the animals like each other, but we cannot intervene," says Yang Changjiang, keeper in Hetaoping. "What comes next is entirely up to you."

Releasing the pandas will take trial and error, time and money, says ecologist McShea. "But the Chinese will make it."

In a training facility in Wolong, Ye Ye appears at the fence and waits for a treat. Her young Hua Yan ("Pretty Girl") is nowhere to be seen, and that's a good thing. Independence is the key to survival - and the three-year-old will soon be released into the wild.

First it is Hua Jiao ("tender beauty") turn. The young she-bear is caught, receives a final health check and a collar with a transmitter. She is then brought in a cage by car to the Liziping nature reserve, 300 kilometers away. The area is a good panda habitat and the small population is ready for a new member.

It is the day that those involved have been working towards since the start of this extraordinary experiment. Saving the pandas is a process that has to be worked on day in and day out, bear by bear.The release of Hua Jiao into the wild is a small, decisive step in this direction. Five more cubs are to follow her into the wild in the next few years. The pandas will continue to hit the headlines, and no one knows if there will be talk of tragedy - or triumph.

That morning, under a clear blue sky, four men lift Hua Jiao's cage from the truck and set it down with the opening facing the forest. Bamboo barriers show the she-bear the way and hide the curious onlookers. When a carer opens the door, the young female panda remains seated and continues to chew on its bamboo, unimpressed. It is Hua Jiao's last meal in captivity. From now on she has to take care of herself. In a few years she may find a companion and, if all goes well, add five or more cubs to the population. This is not a groundbreaking number, but for the giant pandas, of which just under 2,000 are left in the wild, every single animal counts.

The nurses give Hua Jiao a bit of goodwill, and finally she dares to come out. She squints into the light, her paws sinking into the soft forest floor. And then, without looking back at her guards and at her previous life, she walks into freedom.

(NG, issue 08/2016, page (s) 106 to 127)