Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Panda Conservation: What are We Saving Them For?

Lifesavers save lives, sight savers save your eyesight and breath savers clean your breath so that it is not offensive to others. When that commercial comes on TV for the popular mint Breath Savers, I’ve always been fond of making the joke: “Breath Savers: what are we saving it for?” One can save their breath when making redundant conversation or trying to tell a teenager anything, I know. But otherwise, one must expend breath in order to live. So… what do we need Breath Savers for? Or are we rescuing conversants from our own halitosis?

Panda conservation is a different matter. Pandas need conserving. There aren’t very many of them left in the world – fewer than 2,000. So, the Chinese government has invested a substantial sum of money and other resources such as: biologists, geneticists and others specializing in animal husbandry to make sure the pandas continue to survive and thrive.

When I say survive, I am not joking. Pandas are called living fossils; the species is over 8 million years old. According to biologists, the species should have died out millennia ago. They are poor at breeding in the wild. Mating season for pandas is only about one month, somewhere between April and May. A lot of times the mating ritual yields no results. Between the lack of fecundity and bandits who are more than willing to risk a prison term for poaching the endangered panda, the future of the species is definitely questionable.

Pandas are crepiscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and at dusk. They tend to sleep a lot because their metabolism is so slow, thus they have earned the reputation for being lazy. They are actually quite playful when they are full of energy. They enjoy rolling around and engaging in ‘panda tag’, a game similar to human tag, just played with pandas instead of children. Although, I think pandas do not have set rules like humans do.

There are in fact two types of pandas: red and giant. ‘Giant’ is a misnomer because in fact these bears are not very big. They stand maybe 6’tall when on their hind legs; when sitting up they are no more than 4’ tall. Red pandas resemble a raccoon in size and appearance; in fact pandas and raccoons are genetically related.

Both types of pandas like to sleep in trees. I don’t know for sure why but I suspect it is because it makes it harder for predators to see them while they are asleep. Giant pandas curl up in such a way that only the black part of them is visible to the ground below and red pandas have a black underbelly to trick predators into not seeing them. Neither species of panda is especially sociable but the red pandas especially are not communal animals.

At one time, pandas were carnivores. Some undetermined time centuries ago, pandas changed from carnivore to herbivore. Scientists do not know why. I wish they did; it frustrated me to no end to learn this fact and not be told a reason for it. The poor pandas and scientists must be even more frustrated than I got; pandas only absorb 20% of the nutrients of the bamboo they consume by the pound before it is ejected. In the wild pandas eat fruit, leaves and tree bark to supplement their diet; in the conservation area they are fed a special ‘bread’ cooked up in the panda kitchen and served to the ever hungry animals daily.

The panda conservation park, for all of its size, cannot grow enough bamboo to feed its population. The park managers buy bamboo from local farmers and use the park-grown bamboo as a supplement to what they buy. I do not know how much bamboo an average sized panda consumes each day, but if they are only absorbing 20% of the nutrients, it is no wonder their metabolism is so slow!

Do I sound like an expert on pandas? While not an expert exactly, I know much more about pandas than before. Actually, this daylong trip to the panda conservation area made me angry. I came to learn about pandas and see some of the playful little bears but walked away with more questions than answers. While I did get to see some pandas I grew impatient with the tour groups who insisted on shouting, clapping their hands and making noise to attract the panda’s attention so they could get a good, face-on photograph or two of a panda. Not only were the tourists shouting and whistling but the tour guides were urging their charges on and joining them in the noisemaking! Our little trio ended up racing through the park ahead of the tour groups so that we could enjoy the pandas in their serene environment, and enjoy the quiet of the park without shouts and whistles from every direction.

As we did not have a tour guide, most of what I learned in the conservation facility came from signs posted around the park. Most of the questions I was left with came from the documentary shown in the panda theater about breeding, and the nurturing of baby pandas. Most unfortunately the research center was closed for maintenance but there were two theaters showing short documentaries that gave me few answers to the many questions I had, like:
· What is a giant panda’s life expectancy now?
· What is their average fecundity?
· Why did they migrate from Northeast to Southwest Asia, and why are they now concentrated in Sichuan province? (besides the obvious answer of: because that is where the conservation area is).
· Why do they only absorb 20% of available nutrients from the bamboo they consume?
· Why did they change from carnivore to herbivore?
· What is the current ratio of male to females in the panda population?

Some answers that I did get are:
· Pandas reach sexual maturity at 5 years of age.
· In the wild a female will seek an acceptable mate; in conservation females are presented with a succession of males. If no mate is accepted, the scientists will use artificial insemination, but only during the set mating period between April and May.
· Because pandas are reluctant breeders the males are usually stimulated using a combination of electrical stimulation and massage to ejaculate (how would you like to have that that job?) The semen is then collected and inseminated.
· Gestation period for expectant pandas is uncertain because of their rotund body shape. Also, the clever pandas know they will receive preferential treatment – more food if they are thought to be pregnant. Some of this breed have been known to ‘fake’ a pregnancy.
· All panda cubs are born clinically premature. They emit constant loud screeching sounds that bewilder their mothers. Sometimes the mother ends up killing her cub because her maternal instinct does not awaken until the cubs are about one month old.
· Cubs are either single or twin birth, seldom do pandas produce more than one cub per pregnancy even though they are most often artificially inseminated.
· The mother raises the cubs until 18 months old and, once that maternal instinct kicks in they are quite loving and devoted to their baby, seldom leaving it.

I guess it is fair to say that, if scientists do not have the answers to all the questions they have they cannot be expected to divulge that information. I just wish they did not raise the questions in my mind because now I really want to know these things!

I thought about it all the way back to Town Center. Slowly my anger cooled and I vowed to do more reading on pandas, if only to satisfy my curiosity. Surely there has got to be more information out there!

One thing I am not curious of: pandas are a dying breed, and only the conservation area stands between them and extinction. It is expensive to maintain this park and to continue to study these creatures and a lot of people besides the government make sizable donations to the park. Most notably Jackie Chan. He donated one million Yuan to the park and adopted two cubs, meaning that he alone pays for their care and upkeep.

Yep, Jackie Chan and his good, good heart strikes again. So, when you watch the movie where he dresses up in a panda costume, rest assured that, for him it is not just a costume. He bills himself as father to the two pandas he adopted. Maybe he wears his panda costume to their birthday parties.

But you don’t need to go to that extent. Just educate your young about pandas and, when they come to visit your city, be sure to visit them and please, make a donation. If not, there might not be any pandas around for our grandkids to marvel over.

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