Being a giant panda conservationist must be one of the most unrewarding jobs in science (once you get over the ‘squeee’ factor). Not only do the damn animals seemingly want to go extinct, what with their obstinate refusal to breed in most circumstances, but when you finally do get them to reproduce then wild pandas go and kill them.
Dr. Hou Rong, principal researcher at the Chengdu Research Foundation, says the program has exceeded the initial goal to breed 300 pandas in captivity. “So we have already created a sustainable population in captivity right now. But in the beginning it was really very, very difficult” she explained. “But now we have solved the many problems in the breeding program [so] it really helps to have the captive population [to] increase.”
Dr. Hou says the next step is to re-introduce captive pandas into the wild. But she acknowledges such plans face many challenges. “Our panda have been living in captivity for five generations. So the panda mother doesn’t know how to live in the wild. This is a challenge for us,” she stated.
The program to re-introduce captive pandas to the wild came to a halt after the death of the male panda, ‘Xiang Xiang’, or ‘Lucky’, which was released into the wild in 2006. Xiang Xiang died a year later after apparently being attacked by wild pandas.
Dr. George Schaller, a veteran ecologist and member of the US Wildlife Conservation Society, feels that China’s attachment to 熊猫 is just what’s preventing the effective reintroduction of animals into the wild.
“It is a cultural feeling that the animal is seen as better off with a roof over its head. And, as you know, if you release animals some of them are going to come to a bad end. Then persons who released it – the officials are going to be criticized and you avoid that by simply not doing it,” said Schaller.