conserving the giant panda
History Of The Giant Panda
The giant panda was not known outside China (and probably hardly known within China) until
1869 when missionary naturalist and explorer Père Armand David first described a giant
panda specimen, that had been shot by Chinese hunters, to the western world. But, it was not
until 1916 that the first westerner, Hugo Weigold, saw a live giant panda and then it was
another 14 years until the next sighting was reported. In the years following its discovery,
killing of giant pandas became a goal of western museum collectors and hunters, beginning
with Kermit and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., sons of Teddy Roosevelt, who shot a specimen on
an expedition sponsored by the Chicago Field Museum. The first live giant panda was
exported to the USA in 1936 by Ruth Harkness, widow of the wealthy adventurer William
Harkness. This giant panda, Su Lin, ended up at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, where she died of
pneumonia in 1938. Over the next 15 years, at least 16 giant pandas were exported to
Western zoos, but these zoos did not have the expertise to properly look after them nor fresh
bamboo readily available, therefore, none survived beyond 10 years of age.
The exportation of giant pandas from China stopped in 1949 with the Cultural Revolution and
the formation of the People’s Republic of China. A handful of animals were sent to zoos in
Europe and North Korea. Then the re-initiation of diplomatic relations between China and the
USA resulted in a 1972 gift of two giant pandas to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in
Washington, DC. This was followed by similar state gifts to Japan, France, the UK, Mexico,
Spain and Germany.
Today, the North American zoos that have giant pandas are the Toronto Zoo (Ontario),
Smithsonian’s National Zoo (Washington, DC), San Diego Zoo (California), Zoo Atlanta
(Georgia), Memphis Zoo (Tennessee), and Chapultepec Zoo (Mexico City).
The Giant Panda – An Endangered Species
Giant pandas are listed as Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature
(IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species. In China, the giant panda is a national treasure and it
has been the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) logo since 1961. The inspiration for this logo came
from Chi-Chi, a giant panda that had arrived at the London Zoo in 1961; the same year the
WWF was formed. The giant panda is one of the most beloved animals in the world and is
perhaps the most powerful symbol in the world for wildlife conservation. It is also one of the
most endangered species in the world, with approximately 1,864 pandas left in the wild up by
268 animals since the last survey in 2003.
One of the main reasons that giant pandas have become endangered is due to habitat
destruction. As the population in China continues to expand, the giant pandas’ habitat is taken
over by development, pushing them into smaller and less livable areas. Habitat destruction
also leads to food shortages. Besides habitat loss, a further threat is the periodic, large-scale
die-off of bamboo at intervals of 15 to 120 years. Poaching of giant pandas was a serious
problem in the past; however, it is no longer considered a threat since the Chinese
government has adopted conservation initiatives for this species.
Today, wild giant pandas live only in portions of six isolated mountain ranges in central China,
specifically in the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Shanxi. They live in temperate montane
forests with dense stands of bamboo at altitudes of 1,500 to 3,000 meters (4,921 to 9,843 feet)
above sea level. In the past, the giant panda ranged throughout most of southern and eastern
China, with fossils indicating presence as far south as Myanmar and Vietnam and stretching
north nearly to Beijing.
Impact of Man
Human encroachment has driven the species from lowland areas to the mountains and threats
to giant pandas include:
Roads and railways fragment their territory. This isolates giant pandas and compromises
mating. It also reduces access to bamboo, which is a staple in their diet.
Giant pandas feed on several varieties of bamboo at different times of the year. If one
type of bamboo is destroyed by development, it can leave the giant panda with nothing to
eat during the time it normally thrives, increasing the risk of starvation.
While they do have natural predators, jackals, leopards, and the yellow-throated martin
which eats their young, their most deadly predator is man.
Conservation of Giant Pandas
Today, there are 67 giant panda reserves in China, an increase of 27 since the last survey, all
attempting to preserve the giant pandas’ habitat and support breeding programs. Logging has
been banned in these reserves and re-forestation programs are being implemented to reclaim
agricultural areas. Corridors are being created to help connect fragmented habitat. As well as
in Asia, many zoos in Australia, Europe and North America are involved in protecting the giant
panda from possible extinction through breeding programs and conservation initiatives.
What Is Needed to Protect the Giant Panda
Areas of protection need to be increased.
Create green corridors (strips of natural habitat) to link up isolated groups of giant
Curtail encroachment (farming) and illegal logging.
Increase capacity for reserve management and continued research.
More education about the importance of the species and what you can do to help!
Toronto Zoo Research Plans
The Toronto Zoo is working closely with other zoos that have giant pandas to expand the
numbers needed for scientific research and collaboration efforts. This involves studies in
animal behaviour, enrichment, nutrition, veterinary science, and reproduction. The Toronto
Zoo has an extensive Behavioural Enrichment Program. Giant panda behavioural enrichment
studies have been designed and conducted.
The Toronto Zoo’s Wildlife Nutrition Centre coordinates studies in giant panda physiology and
nutrition as well as bamboo propagation.
The Toronto Zoo offers a three-year Doctor of Veterinary Science (DVSc) postgraduate
program with the University of Guelph. There is an opportunity for studies related to the giant
Breeding of giant pandas in captivity has been difficult for a variety of reasons; however, giant
pandas are one of the few species where assisted reproductive technologies have been
instrumental in improving reproductive success. Use of urinary hormone monitoring techniques
for estrus detection and artificial insemination techniques with fresh and frozen-thawed sperm
has resulted in many successful births over the past 10 years at various zoos and breeding
facilities around the world. Despite these successes, further research is still necessary to
ensure the long-term preservation of giant pandas in captivity and in the wild. The Toronto
Zoo’s reproductive physiology program has the equipment and technical expertise to play a
major role in contributing to the preservation of this species.