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Biology 103
2000 Third Web Report
On Serendip

The Giant Panda

Katherine Kennedy

Once, the giant panda (Ailuropoda Melanleuca) flourished in the mountains of eastern China as well as in neighboring Myanmar and North Vietnam. However, as China has grown in population, industry has expanded, and the former abundance of bamboo dwindled, the panda's natural habitat has been taken over and they no longer can survive in the lands of their ancestors. Adding to the loss of their home, poachers in seek of panda hides have killed off thousands and continue to do so as the price of panda fur rises, which can bring up to $200,000 in Japan, with the strict laws and intense punishments that accompany poaching. Today, only about 1,000 pandas are left in the wild and are found in the bamboo forests of southwestern China set aside by the Chinese government as reserves to protect the majestic and very endangered animals. As world wide organizations, the Chinese government, animal rights activists, and concerned individuals fight to preserve this ancient animal, who is believed to have come into this world over 600,000 years ago, they face many problems of the modern world. Indeed, perhaps leading us to believe that the struggle to save the panda may in fact be a fight of new versus old.

The giant panda is a beloved creature and a national symbol of China. The bear-like animal that gently gnaws on bamboo while posing for pictures is the embodiment of all cuddly things. The panda has the digestive system of a carnivore, but has since adapted to the steady diet of bamboo, which makes up 95% of their diet, along with flowers, other plants, and occasionally an egg or small animal. This adaptation alone has placed the panda population in great danger. At regular intervals, 10 to 100 years depending on the species, bamboo plants "flower" and die. With in a year they will regenerate from seed, but it may take up to twenty years before the area may support a panda population again. China has tried to solve this problem by bringing bamboo to the some fourteen panda reserves, but bamboo has become very expensive as local farmers no longer grow it because up until now there has been very little demand. Because of this, pandas that live in the reserves have had to change their diet habits from bamboo to mostly other kinds of plants and "science diets" created by the teams of researches that continually watch over them.

Because the panda's natural habitat is high in the mountains, from 8,500 to 11,500 feet above sea level, pandas have a thick hide to protect their six foot tall, 200-300 pound, bodies from the cold. Although they are very similar to most bears, the panda does not hibernate. Instead, when the weather is cold in the winter, they move down to lower elevations for warmth and in the summer they move to higher elevations to stay cool. Because of this, panda's have a difficult time adapting to captivity. Especially in America, most zoos and research centers that keep pandas are located at or close to sea level in warm climates, such as the San Diego Zoo, the Atlanta Zoo, and the zoo in Washington D.C.. This also means that millions of dollars must be spent in order to create an environment similar to their natural home.

Scientists believe that this difficulty to adapt contributes to the unsuccessful mating attempts in captivity. Panda almost always refuse to mate, and it is by artificial insemination only that the population of captive pandas, now around 60, continues to grow - though it grows very slowly. To attempt to solve this problem, scientists have been recently taking steps toward cloning giant pandas. They hope to do this by growing an embryo that contains a dead animal's genes. This would also help because if they could clone pandas they could introduce them into the wild, while pandas born in captivity will ultimately remain in captivity.

However, while scientists are working to increase the panda population by scientific means, the fight for the panda's preservation continues through lobbying and international policy. In 1998 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department announced new plans to save the pandas in the wild through captivity regulations. Their new policy clarified the requirements for import permits for organizations carrying out work directly related to the conservation of panda populations. Pandas would no longer be taken out of the wild simply to go to zoo exhibits. Instead, in order for a facility to import a panda, they must be devoted to researching was to preserve the animal as well as pay high fees to China that will supplement panda preserves there.

Other efforts to preserve the panda include a cooperation between the World Wildlife Fund and the Chinese Ministry of Forestry. Originally the two focused on the finding out more about the panda and its habits. Now, they have helped to create reserves, re-establish habitat lings between isolated pandas, reduce industry growth around panda populations, and strengthened public awareness of the panda situation. Other contributors include private donors to the panda cause, as the animal remains a favorite throughout the world, as well as donations from nations other than China, especially the U.S. as they continue to try to improve international relations with China. The United Nations has also agreed to aid China in their fight to save the panda.

Yet, however much money organizations devoted to saving the panda collect, it still seems to be a losing battle. As China continues to grow exponentially the population further crowds panda habitats and restricts their natural movement. Further more, the bamboo problem continues to be a large one as pandas encounter great difficulty when adapting to other strange diets. The problems with breeding have yet to be solved as only few pandas, three in the United States, have been born in zoos outside of China since the mid-nineteen-seventies. The panda also continues to be used as a diplomatic toy. The Chinese government still allows pandas to be sold for purely exhibition and profit reasons despite new laws and policies and they are continually used and exploited in unhealthy conditions.

Saving the giant panda in the future must include a cooperation of all those involved and policies strictly devoted to their preservation, or all attempts will fail. As the population in the wild continues to decrease, these wonderful animals do not have much time left, and it saddens me and many others to think that someday, in the near future, they may no longer exist. And as this situation does become more desperate it looks as though that may be possible. As the panda's struggle continues it symbolizes the struggle of the old world and cultures to go on in the explosive trend of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to search out the new and dispose of the old. But, perhaps, we still need the old.

WWW Sources

1) World Wild Fund for Nature's, whose logo is a Giant Panda, Panda website.

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3)Giant Panda

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5)Smithsonian National Zoo, website on Giant Pandas

1) San Diego Zoo Panda Website




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