Can the panda be saved?

Captive breeding has been a success. Now comes the challenge of easing pandas back into their native habitat.

I crouch low in the grass to get a closer look at the animal lurching toward me. She’s about four months old, the size of a football, slightly bug-eyed, and no doubt as soft and fragrant as a puppy. The urge to scoop her up and squeeze her is overwhelming.

That adorability is one reason the giant panda is an international sensation as well as a cultural icon—and an economic gold mine in China. Now the whole world is watching China’s dogged attempt to keep pandas on the map.

Like many species, giant pandas have declined as the growing human population has taken over once wild lands. But since 1990, when the species was labelled endangered, the Chinese have perfected breeding methods and built a captive population hundreds strong.

What comes next in this bear’s conservation may decide whether the giant panda becomes a relic behind bars—or roams free in the wild.

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To satisfy their love for bamboo, which represents 99 per cent of their diet, giant pandas used to range across southern and eastern China and northern Myanmar and Vietnam. Now they’re found in perhaps one per cent of their historic range—China’s patchy mountains.

The Chinese government’s most recent panda survey, from 2014, reported 1,864 in the wild, 17 per cent more than in 2003. But Marc Brody, who founded the conservation non-profit organisation Panda Mountain, warns that it’s tough to trust specific figures. “We may just be getting better at counting pandas,” he says.

"Even after many years, whenever a panda is pregnant or gives birth here, everyone is so joyful and excited"

In the meantime, the Chinese are furiously breeding their iconic bear in captivity. The early years saw many failed attempts, both at breeding and at keeping cubs alive.

With assistance from abroad, the Chinese turned things around. David Wildt, of the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute, was part of the international team that first worked with Chinese scientists on panda biology and husbandry. “Pretty soon they had masses of baby pandas,” he says. “In a sens, we trained ourselves out of a job.”

Much of the action happens at Bifengxia Panda Base, or BFX, in Ya’an City, Sichuan Province. This is where I had my close-up with cubs. Visitors here can see adult bears in outdoor yards—hunched over broad bellies, chomping messily on long bamboo stalks from enormous piles delivered several times a day.

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Up a hill from these exhibits lies the staff-only building where bears in the breeding programme reside. Typically there’s a female panda in each enclosure, sometimes with a cub in her arms.

“Even after many years, whenever a panda is pregnant or gives birth here, everyone is so joyful and excited,” veteran keeper Zhang Xin told me. 

In this setting, little about panda production is natural. To set the mood, breeders in China have tried “panda porn”—videos of pandas mating; apples on sticks to tempt males into mounting position; herbs; and even Viagra and sex toys. Zhang Hemin, executive director of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, which oversees BFX and two other panda bases, recalls an awkward shopping trip to an “adult toy store” in Chengdu. “I had to ask for a receipt to submit to the government for reimbursement,” he told me.

"On a positive note, ‘Poaching isn’t a problem here: nobody is touching the pandas,’ says William McShea"

Now protocol includes artificial insemination. Part of the challenge is that female pandas are in heat just once a year and then for only 24 to 72 hours. Endocrinologists monitor hormones that can predict ovulation and may inseminate several times to boost the chances of implantation.

Then, for months, females keep the keepers guessing. “It’s hard to even know if a panda’s pregnant,” says BFX’s director, Zhang Guiquan. “The foetus is so tiny that it’s easy to miss on an ultrasound.” Pandas can have delayed implantation, extremely varied gestation times, and quiet miscarriages.

This massive captive-breeding effort might suggest that pandas are simply sexually inept. Not so. For millions of years, wild bears have done the deed without human intervention, based on natural cycles, scent marking, mating calls, and complex social relationships that are mostly missing in captivity.

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“What we are asking them to do—basically have sex in a phone booth with a crowd of people watching—has little to do with real panda reproduction,” says Smithsonian ecologist William McShea.

Still, the Chinese are getting big results. In 2015, 38 cubs were born in China. (BFX produced 18 of them—its highest number yet.) In the panda nursery building at the centre of BFX is the immaculate incubator room, where the cubs, when not with mum or a surrogate mother bear, get 24/7 human care.

Visitors outside press their noses and cameras against the window, oohing and aahing over five fluff balls on the floor. Some of the cubs are napping; others are wide-eyed and wiggly, squeaking like dog toys.

Liu Juan, petite and shy behind square-rimmed glasses, is working a 24-hour shift, her second that week. She has a toddler who stays at home with family. “This job is more intense,” she says of mothering the pandas, “but I love being with them.”

Bottle-feeding the newborns, rocking, burping, responding to their bleats for attention, rubbing bellies to stimulate the gut, weighing and measuring, and keeping them from wandering—“the work is non-stop, a crazy amount,” explains Liu Juan. There’s massive pressure, she says, to keep the cubs alive: “They’re so important to China.”

Most pandas at BFX will spend their lives in captivity, but elsewhere in Sichuan Province researchers have a wilder future in mind for these baby bears.

Hetaoping, a panda base within Wolong Nature Reserve, is a series of stone and concrete buildings tucked into a valley of the Qionglai Shan mountains. Since 1980, the Chinese have been working here with the WWF, the first Western organisation to cooperate on pandas with the government. WWF sent renowned biologist George Schaller to conduct research that became the basis for what we know of pandas today.

Zhang Hemin worked with Schaller in the field. “It was then that I learned to deeply love the panda,” he told me. Zhang had a favourite bear, a curious female who stole his food one snowy night before taking over his tent. “She used it for months, coming back each night, leaving gifts of faeces in my bed.”

These days, select cubs are trained for life in the wild at Hetaoping. Keepers wear panda costumes scented with panda urine so that young bears don’t get used to humans. A cub here remains with its mother and is eased toward wildness. After a year or so, the pair is moved to a large, fenced-in habitat up the mountain where the mother can continue coaching her offspring. To qualify for release, Zhang explained, a young panda must be independent; wary of other animals, including humans; and capable of finding food and shelter unaided.

Adequate habitat for the bears’ release is a concern. Since the 1970s the Chinese have gone from 12 to 67 panda reserves. But many are very small, populated by villagers, and cut up by roads, farms, and other human constructions. More than a third of wild pandas live or venture beyond reserves’ invisible boundaries, says the Smithsonian’s McShea, where habitat may be marginal.

On a positive note, “poaching isn’t a problem here. Nobody is touching pandas,” McShea says. Hunting pandas was legal in China until the 1960s; now killing one could mean 20 years in prison.

"We hope that the pandas like each other but we can’t interfere—What comes next will be up to them"

A massive earthquake in 2008, which was estimated to have killed 90,000 people and destroyed part of Hetaoping, gave the government more reason to persuade villagers living in bear habitat to move. Officials built a series of lowland villages to house many of the displaced. But some refuse to let go of their old life. Li Shufang, a 76-year-old woman I visited in the simple home she shares with relatives, walks several hours a day, up and down the mountain, to tend to pigs and a garden where she lived before the quake. When I asked how she felt about making way for pandas, she spat back, “Why didn’t they move the bears instead?” 

To turn the reclaimed land into bear habitat, locals are hired to plant seedlings where forests were diminished by logging or by earthquake damage. But the mountainous terrain makes it hard to plant on a large scale—so the landscape remains fragmented and, as a result, the panda populations do too.

Barney Long, director of species conservation at Global Wildlife Conservation, says that only nine of some 33 panda subpopulations have enough animals to persist long term. Climate-change models warn that in the next 70 years, warming could reduce the remaining giant panda habitat by nearly 60 per cent. At least for now, rebuilding, connecting and protecting habitat may be the best focus for panda conservation.

Of the five pandas released since 2006, all wearing tracking collars, three are still out there. Two were found dead, one probably the victim of aggression from wild male pandas. Like breeding, rewilding pandas “will take trial and error, time and money,” McShea says. 

Zhang Hemin is similarly confident: “I’ve had two important jobs in my life so far. To get pandas breeding, which is now no problem. Now we have to make sure there’s good habitat and put pandas in it.” 

And once they’re running free and ready to mate? “We hope that they like each other, but we can’t interfere,” says Hetaoping keeper Yang Changjiang. “What comes next will be up to them.”

Over four days in November 2015, a Wolong cub named Hua Jiao (Delicate Beauty) is caught, given a final health check, fitted with a collar, crated, and driven 200 miles to the Liziping Nature Reserve. The reserve has a small panda population ripe for a new member.

Under a bright blue sky, four men position Hua Jiao’s cage facing the forest. Without fanfare, a keeper unlatches the door. At first the young panda stays put at the back of the crate, munching bamboo, her last captive meal. After today she’ll fend for herself. In a few years she may seek a mate and could add five or more cubs to the population over her lifetime. It’s not a game-changing number, but for an endangered species with fewer than 2,000 animals in the wild, every individual panda cub counts.

Finally, with some coaxing from the keepers, Hua Jiao emerges, blinking into the light. And then, without a glance back at her captors, she lopes toward freedom.