Pandas on the Move

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Zhen Zhen on the move
Zhen Zhen on the move

Ever since I can remember, the San Diego Zoo has had pandas, but I have never stopped and realized how special a privilege it really is. The San Diego Zoo was the first zoo in the United States in over 20 years to receive pandas onto their grounds in 1996. Pandas are critically endangered, due to humans depleting the bamboo forests that they rely on, so it was an honor to be entrusted with the care of these animals. The panda conservation program is centered on researching to find out more about them biologically and behaviorally. Since the pandas are so protected, behavioral research is the key to understanding how pandas work.


We met with Megan Owen, a behaviorist at the Zoo who has been dedicated to the pandas. She monitors the behavior of the pandas and then compiles her data onto the computer for analysis. We spent some time with Zhen Zhen, the panda youngster who was recently weaned from her mother. Currently, observing her is important to make sure she is coping without being in the presence of his mother, and to study trends of how cubs act in all stages of life. We were equipped with clipboards, an ethogram, and a stopwatch. An ethogram is a dictionary of behaviors, their descriptions, and handy abbreviations. After each minute, the stopwatch went off, and we recorded an abbreviation from the ethogram of what Zhen Zhen was doing.


Keeping pandas in zoos is essential for a number of reasons. First, we have been able to observe so much that would be impossible in the wild. For example, the pandas Bai Yun and Gao Gao have a very specific breeding pattern. Pandas are solitary and can only have cubs once a year during a certain time, so when a female is ready she only has 2-3 days to find a male panda that might be miles away. We have learned about the intricacies of these interactions through the research at the zoo, and accordingly been able to run an extremely successful breeding program to help increase the panda population.


Another way to protect them is to aid them directly in the wild. It has been found that protected panda corridors are needed from each patch of bamboo forest in order to not isolate a few solitary pandas in a way that would prevent them from finding a mate. However, it can be quite a challenge to create these corridors and convince the locals to see the importance of excluding human activity and habitation in these areas.


Even though millions of people have come to view and visit the pandas at the San Diego Zoo in the past 13 years, it still is something special. Seeing a panda with your own eyes is a valuable educational experience to the public, who can see pandas, learn about them, and hopefully have a desire to protect them as well.


Heidi, Conservation team