By Rick Dower
AT LAST, BAI YUN IS ON THE MOVE. Usually sedate—as are most pandas—she shuffles around her grassy enclosure on a bright spring morning. As the milling crowd of zoo visitors perks up, Bai Yun yanks a hunk of bamboo out of a pile and shimmies up a handy pine tree. She nestles down on her back and begins nibbling the bamboo, propped cozily in a crook of branches like an outsized black-and-white housecat. The onlookers, mainly families with small children, chatter and lean forward. Toddlers are hoisted for a better view. Cameras fire. To see a giant panda in the flesh in the United States is a rare experience. To see one doing something interesting is rarer still.
It probably isn’t a stretch to say that the fate of remaining wild pandas, gravely endangered in their native China, may lie to some degree in the paws of Bai Yun and Shi Shi, her much older costar at the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Research Station. Oblivious to their local stardom since arriving in 1996, the two are proving to be a mother lode of new insight into the secretive world of pandas.
Scientists here and in China are scrutinizing the pandas’ biochemistry, communication and behavior. Conservation biologists expect the information to be used in practical ways to improve panda survival rates in their native mountain forests of the Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces, where fewer than a thousand of the bearlike animals are believed to still exist. That’s the plan under the groundbreaking panda blueprint crafted by our federal government with input from the San Diego Zoo, China and other interested parties. And the San Diego Zoo is already at the forefront in the battle to save the giant pandas.
In the three years since Bai Yun and Shi Shi’s arrival here, teams of scientists—Chinese and San Diegan—have made repeated trips between San Diego and the Wolong Nature Preserve to share information. Janet Hawes, a nursery keeper at the San Diego Zoo, has been working closely over the past two years with Wei Rong Ping, the scientist in charge of the panda nursery at Wolong. When Wei came here in 1997 on one of his scientific missions, the two bonded quickly.
“That was my first experience working with the Chinese people,” says Hawes, “and the aim of that project was not only for him to work with me here in the nursery to learn some of our techniques but for me to get a broader understanding of the situation in Wolong.
“He and I would spend one day a week together, five hours at a time, and he would follow me around and witness what was going on,” she says. “At the time, we were reintroducing a hand-raised sun bear to its family group, and he was able to witness the socialization of that animal—the bottle-feeding, the sterilization, the cleanliness. In turn, he was also able to impart to me what a neonatal panda was like, and some of the difficulties he faced.”
That sort of information exchange—the San Diego Zoo’s expertise in captive breeding and the hand-raising of endangered species, and the vast Chinese experience with the giant pandas in their native habitat—has made our zoo invaluable in the process of preserving the pandas.
San Diego’s panda team leader Don Lindburg, a scientist not given to hyperbole, notes that most zoo people (Chinese in particular) have not historically approached animals from a scientific viewpoint. He believes the San Diego Zoo has “given people the incentive to once again get involved with this species.” Adds Lindburg, “It’s probably questionable that conservation efforts in China would be going as well as they are without the involvement of our institution.”
This fall, the San Diego Zoological Society and the World Wildlife Fund will host an international conference on panda preservation, and it will be held here. It’s been eight years since the last major panda conference (in Washington, D.C.), and Lindburg believes this symposium will signal a turning point in the revival of the species.
“We’ve surprised people with how much you can learn from two animals in such a short time,” he says. “Before, at these conferences, it was always about planning for the future. Now it’s also going to be about what we’ve accomplished and where we go with what we’ve learned.” And there’s a gold mine of information to share.
Not so long ago, the mere presence of pandas in a zoo meant a gold mine of another sort. Because of their irresistible teddy-bear looks and immense appeal with the public, pandas could be counted on to boost attendance and fill cash registers with souvenir sales wherever they appeared. When the San Diego Zoo famously hosted Basi and Yuan Yuan, a panda pair loaned by China in 1987-88, attendance soared. Zoo officials spared no marketing expense to stoke “pandamonium.” The pandas performed trained tricks like riding a unicycle for record crowds.
Today, clearly, it’s another story. No more circus tricks. No more of what critics cuttingly referred to as China’s “rent-a-panda” program. In a recently announced policy, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) now flatly prohibits pandas from being imported on short-term loans and then displayed for commercial gain at U.S. zoos.
Central to the new plan, which parallels the San Diego Zoo’s pilot program, is that net profits from a panda exchange must be plowed back into conservation efforts in China, using a complex tracking and reporting system. Pandas brought into the United States must benefit their brethren in the wild. The groundbreaking policy was prompted by fears China was collecting wild pandas and loaning them out to zoos around the world in exchange for hefty cash payments and trade concessions, while taking few measures to ensure panda conservation at home.
Still, 32 months after they arrived here, there’s no understating the impact Bai Yun and Shi Shi have had in fostering the zoo’s prestige and positive PR. After all, pandas are arguably the most popular wild animal on the planet, and the San Diego Zoo currently boasts the only pair in the United States (a lone aging male, Hsing-Hsing, resides at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and Zoo Atlanta is getting a pair this fall).
“No other animal can draw that level of interest and potential commercial value. No other animal is worth $1 million a year. Pandas,” says Marshall Jones, assistant director of the USFWS, “are in a league all their own.” Captive panda breeding should no longer be the means to an end, he adds. “Breeding more pandas in order to have more pandas in zoos is not the goal. Having more in the wild is.”
The sea change in panda protocol followed a three-year moratorium on new giant panda permits enacted by the Wildlife Service starting in 1993. It was lifted last August after high-level discussions with the Chinese government, as well as San Diego Zoo officials, the American Zoo & Aquarium Association, panda scientists and international conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund. At first rejected by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit, the zoo’s permit was ultimately approved after zoo officials rewrote it to focus exclusively on research and conservation instead of on breeding.
For the privilege of hosting Bai Yun and Shi Shi for the next 12 years, the zoo is paying China $1 million per year as well as covering all expenses related to the pandas’ stay. The $1 million annual grant goes toward verifiable panda research and conservation efforts in China in consultation with zoo researchers. (The bulk of the money comes from the Pacific Bell Foundation, while the zoo contributes about $250,000.)
Among its many details, the agreement mandates the sort of sharing of data and technology and rotation of researchers between the zoo and the Wolong Nature Preserve that brought Wei Rong Ping and Janet Hawes together. About a dozen San Diego–based researchers travel to Wolong at regular intervals to conduct field research. Hawes has recently returned from scientific studies at Wolong, and at the moment, two Chinese scientists are here.
San Diego Zoological Society executive director Doug Myers visited China numerous times during the four-year effort to secure the two pandas. He says the permit application ran thousands of pages and involved “countless hours” negotiating with Chinese officials, drawing up plans for the panda facility and hammering out details of the proposed program with the USFWS.
Although the USFWS rules have quashed zoos’ financial incentive to display pandas, Bai Yun and Shi Shi’s long-term presence in San Diego helps fuel the zoo’s growing reputation as a serious center of research and education. “They’ve really put us front and center on the cutting edge of science in endangered species,” says Myers, who displays the zoo’s original panda permit on an office wall like a trophy. “It underlines the importance of the zoo’s scientific work.” Most of the panda researchers here are attached to the Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species (CRES), the zoo’s research arm.
Pandamonium appears to have abated somewhat in San Diego. In contrast to the zoo’s 1980s experience, when for months long lines formed for a glimpse of Basi and Yuan Yuan, the Giant Panda Research Station has settled in as the zoo’s fourth most-popular exhibit, after Polar Bear Plunge, Hippo Beach and Gorilla Tropics.
That hasn’t dampened expectations at Zoo Atlanta, however, which has prepared an elaborate $12 million facility for the pair of pandas due there in the fall. “Everyone here is getting more excited by the day,” says Zoo Atlanta spokeswoman Gail Eaton. “We think pandas are going to be an even bigger deal here than in your city, because our zoo is fairly small and they’ll make a big impact here.”
The two zoos plan to collaborate on panda research and conservation with each other as well as with the Chinese. San Diego officials also recently signed a reciprocal agreement to pool research with the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico, where four giant pandas reside.
WHILE VISITORS to the Giant Panda Research Station coo over Bai Yun’s bamboo-nibbling, panda team leader Lindburg shows a guest around the bunkerlike control center at the heart of the $1.3 million, 8,500-square-foot panda facility. Back here, virtually every move the pandas make is closely observed, recorded and analyzed using high-tech equipment.
Video cameras track Bai Yun and Shi Shi’s movements 24 hours a day. Their urine and feces are collected for study, as are samples from their scent marks. CRES geneticist Oliver Ryder and a Chinese colleague figured out a technique to extract DNA from the samples, eliminating the need to take blood and removing a stressful event for the pandas. The sleeping platforms double as scales, bypassing another stress source. Loose fur is collected. Time spent sleeping, eating, pacing is all noted and logged via computer program.
Staffers note the pair’s intake of bamboo and special high-fiber “leaf-eater” biscuits that zoo nutritionist Mark Edwards found to supplement their captive diet. Panda sounds—if they utter any—can be taped, while noise levels around the enclosure are monitored to reduce another possible source of panda stress. There’s even an automated weather-data collection station to track outside conditions, and hourly security checks at night.
Out of the view of the crowds, the two pandas—who are kept separated except during courting efforts—enjoy the run of a spacious exercise area filled with trees, rocks, bamboo stands, a pond and grass. In spring, a team of researchers gears up to monitor Bai Yun’s fleeting mating cycle, in hopes of detecting correct timing for potential panda procreation. While a captive birth is no longer the point of the program, a panda pregnancy represents a bonanza for new information. (At 20, Shi Shi hasn’t shown much romantic initiative since arriving, but zoo scientists hope he’ll come around eventually. They also had been planning to attempt to artificially inseminate the 7 1/2-year-old Bai Yun this spring, as was tried in 1998. Any cub offspring belong to China.)
Lindburg, an animal behaviorist by training, says only in the past few years has the “dim outline” of what was known about giant pandas come into focus. Because the pandas are such elusive, solitary creatures who inhabit remote, forested mountain regions, little hard data about them has been collected until recently. In particular, CRES scientists’ work analyzing chemical makeup of male and female scent marks—pandas’ primary means of communicating mating information—is helping illuminate how pandas interact with each other in the wild.
Combining behavioral studies with physiological research hadn’t been done before with pandas, Lindburg says, and it may result in crucial new understanding of pandas’ reproductive needs, territoriality and population density. That, in turn, should lead to more effective conservation measures in the field, such as linking fragmented habitats or using scent to increase chances pandas will meet and mate.
Like Myers, Lindburg has shuttled between San Diego, Beijing and Wolong in the past few years, meeting with multiple layers of the formidable Chinese bureaucracy. Lindburg describes the Chinese as charming but tough negotiators who usually prefer a handshake to a formal document.
“Science drives this whole thing now, and I have to be a player in that. But I’ve actually come to enjoy the political side of it too,” Lindburg admits. “It makes the scientific part more ... meaningful and exciting.”
ALONG WITH PANDA SCIENCE and panda politics, there’s still room for a little panda encounter of a more predictable kind. In front of Bai Yun and Shi Shi’s canyonside digs, visitors can experience the zoo’s busy nothin’-but-pandas gift store. Inside, along with such staples as T-shirts, hats, tote bags and mugs, one may load up on every manner of panda-bedecked gewgaw: suspenders, watches, shoelaces, trivets, olive oil, candy, earrings, coasters, posters, socks, videos, umbrellas, paperweights, thimbles, pennants, silk shorts and blankets. Oh, and a toaster that imprints a panda face on your morning toast.
If all that might seem a bit much, at least zoo officials—thanks to the federal rules —can legitimately claim that every souvenir sold goes to help panda conservation efforts. The setup might even become a model for aiding other endangered species, although as Marshall Jones of the USFWS notes, no other animal is quite in the same league. Tigers, blue whales, condors, black rhinos are all equally—or even more seriously—endangered, for sure, but none is so endearing as Bai Yun and Shi Shi. Pandas definitely have a headlock on the cute-animal constituency.
Pandas may have become nothing less than the quintessential political animal, one snared in a complex vortex of superpower diplomacy, commercial exploitation and scientific demands on two continents. Myers, Lindburg and others involved with the panda project assert that the Chinese government now appears genuinely committed to protecting the remaining pandas. After roughly half the pandas’ native habitat was lost or degraded (since 1980) by loggers, poachers and impoverished peasants, China recently placed the habitat off-limits. But conservationists insist it will take more than laws and good intentions if pandas are to survive into the 21st century as authentic wild animals instead of cuddly icons.
“Conservation science is often the science of crisis,” observes CRES researcher Ryder, another seasoned China hand. “We don’t have the luxury to proceed in a kind of theoretical sequence of information-gathering. That’s why what we find out here is so important”—before it’s too late to make a difference.
Lindburg says he’s optimistic. “It’s a hopeful time for pandas—it really is. Every year, we learn new things, we gain a little more knowledge... I just can’t imagine we would ever let this wonderful animal disappear.” As Lindburg speaks these words, Bai Yun, stuffed with bamboo, has fallen asleep in her arboreal perch in front of a crowd of staring strangers, half a world away from her real forest home, blissfully unaware of any fuss at all.