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Paw patrol

A keeper performs a health check on a giant panda cub at the Wolong Nature Reserve

A keeper performs a health check on agiant panda cub at the Wolong Nature Reserve

Back in the black

“In a region where bad environmental news is common, the efforts to save the giant panda might prove to be the exception to the rule. In the 1980s numbers were down as low as 1,114 and according to latest figures there are now 1,864 pandas in the wild and over 450 in captivity. In September 2016 they were downgraded from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’ on the global list of species at risk of extinction after their population increased by 17 percent in a decade. The decline of one of the world’s most iconic species is slowly being reversed.

It’s a testament to the perseverance of Chinese conservationists who have worked to protect the pandas’ habitat with a network of reserves and wildlife corridors. Local communities have been incentivised to reduce their impact on the mountain forests where the pandas live – and where they need to forage up to 18 kilos of bamboo each day. And scientists have augmented existing populations with a major programme of panda breeding.

Early in their efforts, scientists working on captive breeding realised that there were substantial difficulties in getting the bears to mate naturally. They either lost interest in mating or simply did not know how. A female panda has just one oestrous cycle a year, in the spring and she is only fertile for 24 to 72 hours. That is a tiny window of opportunity.

Breeders have tried showing pandas videos of other pandas mating, and even given them Viagra to get them in the mood. Largely, though, they have been forced to rely on artificial insemination techniques, and have become much better at identifying the perfect time to perform them. Female pandas are closely monitored as they approach their fertile season and urine testing confirms optimal hormone levels. During the procedure, the pandas are sedated and a fresh semen sample is obtained from the male before insemination. The procedure is relatively non-invasive and most pandas are back on their feet within a few hours.”

Caring for giant panda cubs at the Wolong giant panda breeding and research centre

A baby giant panda cub is weighed at the Wolong giant panda centre

Bear necessities

“When giant pandas are born, they are tiny, blind, pink, and almost bald. Their average weight is 100 grammes, only 0.1 percent of their mother’s weight, compared to about 5 percent for human babies. But they’re one of the fastest-growing mammals – it felt like they were literally growing before my eyes.

Panda cubs nurse up to 14 times a day and their mother’s milk is their primary food source for the first year of their lives. Mothers are very protective of their young, putting them down only to find food. Nearly half of all giant panda births are twins, but the mothers can only care for one cub at a time so keepers have developed a careful process for swapping each baby so they are fed both by their mother and by hand.

At the Wolong giant panda centre in China’s Sichuan province, the babies are born in a quiet mossy area, and as they grow and pass various tests they are moved to progressively bigger, “wilder” enclosures. The director, Zhang Hemin, known as “Papa Panda”, calls the enclosures ‘schools’, and refers to the last and biggest of them as ‘Harvard’. If you graduate from Harvard, you get to go into
the wild.

Pandas slated for release never see a recognisable human. Their training is administered equally by their mother and their keepers, who wear panda costumes scented with panda urine at all times. The idea is to make sure the pandas do not become comfortable with humans before they are sent back into the wild – for that reason I also wore a panda costume when I was shooting them.

The pandas are trained to look for their own food, find their own water sources and search for shelter. They are trained to recognise specific threats: at the Wolong centre, there are store rooms filled with stuffed animals including black bears and wolves that are used for predator training, along with audio recordings of animal noises. In the picture opposite, panda keeper Gao Xiao Wen is taking a stuffed leopard scented with leopard faeces to test a captive-born panda’s reactions. This is vital as leopards are the pandas’ biggest enemy in the wild.”

Eighteen baby giant panda cubs are brought for a portrait with Director Zhang Hemin, also known as “Papa Panda” at the Wolong giant panda centre in Sichuan province, China

Gao Xiao Wen carries a stuffed leopard used for predator training

Making tracks

“In the top photo opposite, panda keepers Ma Li and Liu Xiao Quiang check the radio signal on newly released cub Hua Jiao, one, and her mother Cao Cao, 13. The pandas had been brought to a large enclosure at high altitude for the third and final stage of wild panda training: the two keepers are anxious to find out how the cub is faring in the rougher terrain up the mountain.

No expense is spared to make the pandas’ training work: research staff use camouflage, infra-red video surveillance, CCTV and GPS tracking to chart each individual animal’s progress. The trainers know from bitter experience that if they release a panda into the wild without proper training it will swiftly be killed.

The next problem that may face the giant panda is climate change: global warming threatens to put their habitats at risk and to wipe out much of the bamboo on which they rely. The newly announced panda reserve is designed to help counteract this by joining up 67 existing reserves, allowing pandas to graze over a wider area and to mate with a broader range of partners.

I spent three years exploring the world of pandas, meeting the conservationists, learning to understand the panda and trying to think like one. It blew my mind. I think the success that China has had is down to three key reasons. Firstly, they built a real community around the panda: everyone from scientists to schoolchildren and foreign tourists to local communities rallied behind this animal. Secondly, once they got everyone behind  the animal the poaching of pandas, which was rampant in the 1980s, came to an end. Thirdly and most importantly, they committed massive resources to creating more habitats for the bears, as with this new reserve.

Watching this effort in action made me feel that nature really is resilient but we have to give it a chance to succeed. It also made me wonder whether we can take the success of this incredible story and apply it to the much larger problem – saving all endangered animals.”

Panda keepers Ma Li and Liu Xiao Quiang check the radio signal on a newly released cub

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