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About Author: Megan Owen

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Polar Bear Tatqiq Wears It Well

Tatqiq wears a collar

Tatqiq wears a collar for conservation science.

If you visit the San Diego Zoo’s Polar Bear Plunge these days, you might see something new: Tatqiq is wearing a white collar! While Tatqiq seems to be enjoying both wearing this new accessory and the training involved in putting it on and taking it off every day, our motives for having her wear it are focused on conservation science. Tatqiq will be contributing to research led by the U.S. Geological Survey focused on developing a better understanding of the behavior of wild polar bears in Alaska. These data will help us refine our understanding of how sea ice losses driven by climate change will impact polar bears.

The current configuration of the collar is simple: a thick and flexible plastic strap held together with a pair of zip ties, so Tatqiq can remove the collar easily if she wants to. If the collar is pulled, it will immediately loosen and fall off. However, this collar will soon be instrumented with a small accelerometer (the same technology that allows your smart phone to automatically adjust its screen orientation) that will provide scientists with information regarding the behavior of the bear wearing the collar. Because the polar bear’s Arctic sea ice has historically made it near impossible to make direct observations of polar bear behavior in the wild, the data we gain from the accelerometer will provide new insights into their daily behavior, movements, and energetic needs.

Held together with zip ties, the collar can easily come off if needed.

Held together with zip ties, the collar can easily be removed by Tatqiq if it bothers her.

“Radio-collars” have been used to track wildlife for decades and were initially developed to study the movements and infer the behavior of grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park. These early studies provided wildlife scientists with data that revolutionized our understanding of how individual bears moved about the landscape, and in so doing, helped us develop a much better understanding of what their habitat needs might be.

Since that time, the technology used to track wildlife has changed quite a bit, but the collar itself is still most commonly used to mount tracking devices and other instrumentation. With the advent of GPS collars (instead of VHF transmitters), the precision and quantity of the data we can collect on a wide array of animals has greatly expanded. The data collected by the instrumentation on these collars can also be downloaded remotely and frequently, allowing scientists and non-scientists alike the opportunity to track animals in the most remote corners of the Earth in real time and from the comfort of their own home or office.

While movement and location data are valuable, they only tell us part of the story. By studying behavior, we gain more insight into how animals interact with their environment and why different degrees of environmental change may differentially influence their chances of successful reproduction or survival. While baseline data can tell us about the range of behaviors an animal may engage in under a range of “normal conditions,” data collected under challenging environmental conditions can tell us much about the limits of a species’ ability to cope with their new environment and help us better predict what their limits might be. This work is part of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Changing Arctic Ecosystems Initiative.

We hope the collar...

We hope Tatqiq will help us test this new technology for studying wild polar bears.

The polar bear exemplifies the challenges associated with studying and protecting wildlife in our rapidly changing world. The Arctic sea ice, the habitat that the polar bear completely depends on for survival, is disappearing at an alarming rate. These habitat losses are driving population declines across the polar bear’s range, but some subpopulations are being hit harder than others. For example, recent results published from a long-term study of wild polar bears showed that the Alaskan population of bears from the Southern Beaufort Sea had declined by about 40 percent since the year 2000. Forty percent! That is a tremendous decrease and double the level of the most dire estimates that have come out of the last three decades of monitoring.

Tatqiq has always been a great conservation ambassador for polar bears everywhere. Visitors to the San Diego Zoo who have spent time watching Tatqiq (and Chinook and Kalluk) know that she is playful and engaged and demonstrates a range of behaviors that provide insights into the intelligence of these majestic bears. Now, Tatqiq will be helping us better understand how we can apply technology to better understand the behavior of wild bears. She wears it well!

Megan Owen is an associate director in the Applied Animal Ecology Division, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Pandas Zhen Zhen and Yun Zi.

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Pandas Zhen Zhen and Yun Zi

Do you remember when Yun Zi turned 3?

Do you remember when Yun Zi turned 3?

Many of you have been wondering how some of our San Diego Zoo-born pandas are doing since their arrival in China. We are happy to report that both Zhen Zhen and Yun Zi are doing very well!

Zhen Zhen, now 7 years old, lives in Wolong’s Bi Feng Xia panda base. She gave birth back on August 24, her first surviving cub (she gave birth to a stillborn cub in 2013). Mother and cub are both doing great. Her cub, born at 6.9 ounces (194.5 grams) now weighs a healthy 6.6 pounds (3,000 grams)! The behavior of Zhen Zhen and her cub has been normal, and the increase in body weight certainly tells us that this young panda is getting plenty to eat! Wonderful job, Zhen!

Yun Zi, now 5 years old, is also making us proud. He is currently at Wolong’s panda base in Dujiangyan, where he continues to exemplify a robust, energetic, and healthy young male panda. He has settled in just fine to his new surroundings. We still miss him, though, but are thrilled to hear that he is thriving!

Megan Owen is an associate director with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Panda Collaboration.

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Panda Collaboration

A delegation from the Sichuan Forestry Administration and China Wildlife Conservation Association met with members of our staff.

A delegation from the Sichuan Forestry Administration and China Wildlife Conservation Association met with members of our staff.

The San Diego Zoo’s giant panda conservation program has greatly benefited from our long-term collaboration with colleagues in China. The exchange of knowledge regarding the best husbandry practices to ensure the highest-possible level of care for giant pandas has been a hallmark of this international program. We have learned much over the years from our Chinese colleagues, and we have shared what we have learned with them as well.

This summer, we hosted a delegation from the Sichuan Forestry Administration and China Wildlife Conservation Association as its members began their inspection tour of the zoo housing giant panda in the United States. Members of our executive team and staff from our departments of Collections Husbandry Science, Applied Animal Ecology, Reproductive Physiology, and Veterinary Services shared details of our giant panda conservation program and our panda facilities at the Zoo.

A focus of the day’s discussions was the continued international collaboration toward the optimal husbandry care for older giant pandas, as well as the continuation of the collaborative and successful relationship we have developed over the past years. All who participated would agree that is was a successful day, and we are looking forward to continuing our collaboration in support of giant pandas well into the future!

Megan Owen is an associate director with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Bug Safari: Time to Get Outside!

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Climate Change: Polar bears, Sea Ice, and Beyond

Kalluk enjoys last year's snow day at the San Diego Zoo.

Kalluk enjoys last year’s snow day at the San Diego Zoo.

Climate change is back in the news and, unfortunately, the news has not been good. A number of recent reports indicate that carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has reached unprecedented levels. At over 400 parts per million, we have reached a number that would have seemed unimaginable just decades ago. But while the scale of this problem is immense, the real power for changing the current trend is within each of us. The choices we make—what we buy, how we spend our time—can lead to dramatic differences in our carbon footprint. It is possible to reverse the current trend if we all commit to changing our daily habits.

There is a vast array of information now available that outlines the many-faceted ways that the changing climate will impact people and ecosystems all over the world. From extreme weather to climate warming, the reach of climate change is broad. And the reason our climate is changing is known: human activities have driven the release of unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas that effectively blankets the Earth, increasing the amount of heat that stays in our atmosphere. And while we typically associate carbon dioxide emissions with the burning of fossil fuels, such as gas and coal, there are other sources as well that are not as well known. One of the largest contributors to atmospheric carbon is deforestation. Each year, the burning and clearing of tropical forests contributes over 2 billion tons of carbon pollution to the atmosphere.

At the San Diego Zoo, our mission is to connect people to wildlife because that connection can be a powerful force for conservation. I can speak from personal experience as to the power of that connection. Destined for medical school, my career path shifted dramatically because of a chance connection with wildlife. For me, that connection started with the polar bear, a species whose plight has provided some of the defining images associated with climate change, a species whose future we hold in our hands.

As a graduate student, my first field season was spent working out of a remote field camp on the western Hudson Bay, about 15 miles east of Churchill, Manitoba (a.k.a. the Polar Bear Capital of the World). This area, so nicknamed because of the large number of polar bears that congregate there in the fall, was also home to an incredible array of wildlife, including Arctic nesting birds, large herds of caribou, and beluga whales. While polar bears are most numerous and visible during the fall, the bears actually start coming ashore during the summer as the ice on the Bay begins to melt out, and the bears are forced ashore to begin a long fast.

Our field research was primarily done on foot, with miles and miles of walking over the course of the long Arctic summer days, and the possibility of bumping into a polar bear meant that safety measures were taken seriously and practiced regularly. The most basic and important safety measure we had while walking in the field was to scan the horizon with binoculars every few minute, in hopes of spotting any polar bears in the vicinity while they were still a good distance away. On the day I saw my first bear, it was relatively early in the season for polar bears, but the ice had begun to break up on the Bay, a harbinger of polar bears to come. Scan after scan, I saw nothing and continued with my work. And then suddenly, I looked up, and saw a young male bear easily without binoculars, less than 50 feet away. How long had he been following me? Luckily, I was able to make my way safely back to camp. And while it was truly scary to see a bear so close, it was also an event that left an enormous impression on me. It initiated my love of the species and cemented my passion for conserving wildlife and wild places.

Around that same time (the mid-1990s), biologists studying polar bears in the Canadian Arctic documented changes that were occurring within that population of polar bears. These scientists found that reductions in reproductive parameters were correlated with the warming air temperatures that had been documented between 1950 and 1990 and, most importantly, with an increasingly long period where the Hudson Bay was ice free. Because polar bears are completely dependent upon the sea ice for their survival, the directional trend toward less and less ice was of great concern. Twenty years later, I am happy to say that the polar bear is one of the species that I get to study, but saddened to say that the Earth’s CO2 emissions have continued to increase and that the impacts of climate change on polar bears have intensified. No other species better illustrates the impact of climate change on wildlife. Like a real-life version of the game “Break the Ice,” the polar bear’s habitat is disappearing, the ice literally melting at their feet. Their fate is in our hands.

Chinook and Kalluk have been breeding for the past couple of weeks, and we are hopeful, as in years past, that this breeding season will result in the birth of a polar cub in the fall. We will monitor Chinook closely for behavioral and physiological signs of pregnancy and learn as much as we can about the reproductive biology of these amazing animals. Keepers, researchers, and visitors alike have an amazing opportunity to observe our bears in the water and on land at the San Diego Zoo, and in so doing, learn about climate change and the impact that this human-driven change is having on wild polar bears and the Arctic sea ice environment. Polar bears exemplify the role of “conservation ambassadors,” and it is hard to deny the impressive nature of their strength, intelligence, and adaptations to life on the frozen Arctic Ocean.

Climate change may sound like old news to some. Images of polar bears stranded on ice floes were once a common sight in the popular press, but like most news stories, many people have moved on. Unfortunately, climate change has not gone away, and the negative impacts of sea-ice losses on polar bears continue to eke away at their once-pristine Arctic home. I am hopeful that the reemergence of climate change into the news cycle will invigorate people’s interest in doing their part to reverse the trends in CO2 emissions. I am hopeful also that we all seek those connections to nature and wildlife that are so important for engaging us in conservation issues. We can all make a difference.

For those who love our polar bears, and for those who are interested in learning more about how climate change is impacting the species’ Arctic sea ice habitat, I recommend visiting the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) website. This page provides daily updates on sea ice conditions in the polar regions, as well as year by year interactive graphics of the dynamic changes in sea ice extent.

Megan Owen is an associate director with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Our Panda Conservation Program.

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Our Panda Conservation Program

Bai Yun has been a wonderful ambassador for pandas.

Bai Yun has been a wonderful ambassador for pandas.

When Bai Yun arrived at the San Diego Zoo back in November 1996, we all had great expectations for the San Diego Zoo’s panda conservation program. And we knew that these expectations rested squarely on Bai Yun’s beautiful black-and-white shoulders. In the years since, our panda conservation program has grown and has achieved a number of notable successes.

At the center of it all is Bai Yun. Of course, Gao Gao, too, has been extremely important to the success of our breeding program at the San Diego Zoo. Not all male pandas show appropriate breeding behavior, so Gao Gao’s arrival in San Diego in 2003 enabled us to fulfill our goal of studying giant panda reproduction, from breeding to maternal care. However, Bai Yun’s importance to our conservation program goes beyond her successes as a mother, as she has truly exemplified the role of conservation ambassador. Engaging and fascinating the public for the last 18 years, she is the quintessential giant panda, emblematic of the inherent beauty and value of wildlife.

Bai Yun will be 23 years old in September. For those of us who have watched her over the years, we are amazed at her consistent good health, youthful behavior, and appearance. However, this year, her estrous behavior has not been what it has been in the past. Can Bai Yun be heading toward reproductive senescence? Heading into her 23rd year, the answer, most likely, is yes; however, we won’t know for sure until next spring. As of this writing, Bai Yun has not shown more than a minimal level of the behavioral changes that are typically associated with estrus. Back in March, we saw a bit of scent marking and some water walking, behaviors that normally indicate that estrus is coming. However, the expression of these behaviors did not escalate, and soon after they began, they ceased. Since then, Bai Yun has been “quiet.” While estrus can occur into June, the vast majority of breeding, including for our bears here, occurs in March and April,

When Bai Yun gave birth to Xiao Liwu in 2012, it was widely noted that she was the second-oldest giant panda to give birth. While an impressive statistic, that notable milestone provided us with valuable information regarding the finite nature of a female’s biological capacity to produce offspring. Male giant pandas, like other male mammals, can theoretically sire offspring later in life, though for wild pandas, other factors may get in the way of this, including competition with other males for breeding access to females and choosy females that may not be interested.

Bai Yun has given birth to 6 cubs over the past 15 years. While some other females have given birth to 10 or more cubs, the number of litters a female has is typically no more than 6 or 7. For example, between 2004 and 2013, Bai Yun’s first daughter, Hua Mei, has had 10 cubs from 7 litters. While Hua Mei is 8 years younger than Bai Yun, it will be interesting to see whether or not she has more cubs in the coming years. These contrasting mother-daughter patterns are at the heart of one of our research questions: What are the limits of reproductive output in the species?

In some panda breeding facilities, cubs are weaned earlier in order to promote successive annual breeding opportunities. In other facilities, cubs are weaned at about 18 months, mimicking what we believe is the more natural timing of weaning. In these cases, females will only be able to breed every two years. Given this, we might expect to see females that breed every year producing 15 litters over their reproductive lives. However, this does not appear to be the case.

Understanding what governs female reproductive output in giant pandas has implications for both captive breeding and conservation of wild giant pandas, and we are currently analyzing a fairly large volume of data to address this question. Is reproductive output governed exclusively by chronological age? Or is it governed in part by health and vigor? And how does variation in inter-birth-interval (the time between successive pregnancies) influence a female’s lifetime reproductive output? We hope to have some answers to these questions in the coming months.

I have to admit that I never get tired of watching our giant pandas here at the San Diego Zoo. While the excitement of a new cub is undeniable, I know that I will enjoy watching Bai Yun and Gao Gao relax this summer, while young Xiao Liwu explores and plays, enjoying his first summer as a solo panda. Our panda family exemplifying their roles as ambassadors for conservation!

Panda Yun Zi in China.

Update on panda Gao Gao, May 11, 2014: Thank you for all the Gao Gao well wishes! He is doing well post surgery and is enjoying spending time in his back bedrooms. There he is catered to by his keepers 3 to 4 times a day, and he lets them know when he wants back scratches. Gao does have access daily to an off-view exhibit that has a panda camera in it, although he seems to prefer to enjoy the air-conditioned bedrooms, his black sleeping tub, and his keepers’ attention.

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Yun Zi in China

Yun Zi arrives in the quarantine area.

Yun Zi arrives in the quarantine area. Photo credit: Wolong

Life is Good in Dujiangyan

We were all sad to see giant panda Yun Zi leave the San Diego Zoo and move to China, and honestly, we all miss him! However, we were not surprised to hear reports from keeper Jennifer Becerra (see Yun Zi Travels to China) that he traveled well, and it looked like the transition to his new life in China would be very smooth.

Yun Zi explores his new digs.

Yun Zi explores his new digs. Photo credit: Wolong

The changes a panda might experience when he or she moves to a new, far-away home include some changes in diet, new voices, different smells, and, for bears heading to China, the presence of a larger population of other pandas. Experiencing these novel stimuli for the first time may be both challenging and exciting for a young panda, and given Yun Zi’s generally spirited personality, I have no doubt that this was very exciting for him!

A good place to leave a scent mark?

A good place to leave a scent mark? Photo credit: Wolong

Yun Zi is now living at the Duijiangyan Base (part of the China Conservation and Research Centre for Giant Pandas), where there are 21 pandas, including 10 adults. Reports from our colleagues indicate that he is doing very well. Now 4½ years old, Yun Zi is approaching adulthood, but he is not yet of breeding age. That said, this breeding season could provide Yun Zi with some indirect experience, as he may hear the vocal communication of courting pandas at the facility and potentially catch the scent of a panda female in estrus. In a couple of years, he may be ready to experience panda courtship firsthand, but for now, he is simply enjoying spring in the Sichuan Province.

Megan Owen is an associate director with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Panda News: The Good and the Bittersweet.

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Panda News: The Good and the Bittersweet

Yun Zi is a confident subadult panda.

Yun Zi is a confident subadult panda.

The Panda Team is thrilled to share the news that we have extended our loan agreement with China for another five years! This is great news for all of us, and we are excited to see what the next five years brings for our pandas, Bai Yun and Gao Gao, here at the San Diego Zoo and for panda conservation efforts.

We also wanted to let everyone know that Yun Zi, now 4½ years old, will be heading to China to join the breeding program in January 2014. This is an important, yet bittersweet, milestone for all of us because, simply put, we will miss Yun Zi! While all of the pandas born here are special, Yun Zi’s playful antics have brought tremendous joy to all who have watched him grow up. From the first croaks and squawks we heard from him back in the summer of 2009, to his first steps and his growing confidence, strength, and adventurousness, watching him grow into a strong and active young male has been a true pleasure.

Our sadness at seeing him go is brightened, of course, by the fact that he will go to China to become an important part of the breeding program there. As an offspring of Gao Gao, his genes are an important contribution to panda conservation efforts, and we look forward to hearing news of his transition into adulthood.

Getting ready for a trip to China is no small undertaking, and so keepers will be working with Yun Zi over the next month or so to make sure he is ready for the long journey.  It is so important that he becomes comfortable in his traveling crate, and we want to give him as much time as we can to acclimate to it. This means that Yun Zi will  be consistently available for public viewing only until Tuesday, December 10, 2013, before his travel training begins. You may catch a glimpse of him on Panda Cam now and then when he is in the north exhibit. Now over 4 years old and weighing more than his father, Gao Gao, does, we know he will handle this move just fine.

We hope that everyone has a chance to say their goodbyes to the this very special bear. And please feel free to use this comment section to send your best wishes to Yun Zi and his keepers.

Megan Owen is an associate director with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Pandas: How Far We’ve Come.

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Polar Bears, Climate Change, and Mi (Ton Teiow)

Tatqiq's wild counterparts need more snow days.

Tatqiq’s wild counterparts need more snow days.

Mi Ton Teiow, the whimsical “bear” ambassador for the IUCN’s Bear Specialist Group (see post A Whimsical Bear Ambassador Arrives), has continued his travels, along with staff from the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. With these travels, Mi is gaining experience in the multi-faceted world of bear conservation, which often includes extended periods of sitting and talking! While Mi might be anxious to get outside and do field research, our bear ambassador also understands that bringing people together to discuss the nuts and bolts of bear conservation is an important, and necessary, part of the process.

Recently, Mi traveled to the Toledo Zoo to sit in on the annual meeting of the Polar Bear Species Survival Plan (SSP). The role of the SSP (for polar bears or any other conservation-dependent species) is to bring together experts from zoos around the country to ensure that the members of the zoo community are being as effective as possible in supporting conservation efforts for the species. The focus of this SSP meeting was to enhance the synergy between zoo-based research, field-based research, and effective polar bear conservation. Speakers from the U.S. Geological Survey and researchers from the San Diego Zoo, Cincinnati Zoo, and Memphis Zoo presented overviews on current research and results, as well as ideas for the future.

Mi (center) and Megan (standing second from the right) pose with other members of the Polar Bear SSP.

Mi (center) and Megan (standing second from the right) pose with members of the Polar Bear SSP.

While listening in on discussions regarding conservation research, Mi also learned about the primary threat to polar bears: greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activities have led to measurable and rapid changes in global climate patterns. The degree and character of these changes is not uniform, and different regions, ecosystems, and species are being impacted in different ways. When it comes to climate warming, scientists have documented the greatest degree of warming at the Earth’s polar regions.

This is bad news for the polar bear, because increases in both air and ocean temperatures in the Arctic have resulted in rapid losses of sea ice over the past several decades. Polar bears depend on the sea ice for their survival. Without the sea ice, polar bears cannot feed themselves or reproduce successful. This dependence on sea ice has left polar bears vulnerable to extinction in the face of climate change.

While the situation is critical for polar bears, it is not hopeless. Each and every one of us has the ability to help save polar bears by making small changes in our daily lives, such as turning off unneeded lights and riding our bikes more, to reduce our carbon footprint along the way. Because zoos have tremendous access to a large number and wide range of people, we play a critical role in polar bear conservation. As a conservation organization, we are responsible to get the word out, and we are happy that we were able to share our work with ambassador Mi Ton Teiow.

Megan Owen is an associate director for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.
Read about Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow’s previous adventure in Black Bears: A Conservation Success.

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Pandas: How Far We’ve Come

Su Lin is at home in China.

Su Lin is at home in China.

Traveling to China is always an adventure, and the prospect of seeing old friends and long-time colleagues at the International Panda Symposium in Chengdu was exciting! The symposium was truly a great opportunity to listen to scientists from around the world share their updates on current research projects, overviews of the incredible successes for panda conservation achieved over the last 20 years, and important directions for our conservation research efforts for the years to come. We also had an opportunity to visit the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding, where we saw the many panda cubs and young adult bears that have been born there in recent years. There is still so much to learn regarding pandas and their conservation, but it is amazing how far we’ve come in the past 20 years!

On this trip I was also able to check in with staff from Wolong and Bi Feng Xia regarding the status of the San Diego Zoo-born pandas. Having watched their births, first days of life, and years of development into healthy sub-adults, I think we all love to hear how Hua Mei, Su Lin, Zhen Zhen, and Mei Sheng are doing.

Hua Mei, our first-born cub, continues to show that she has her mother’s “good-mom” genes. Now 14 years old, she produced another cub (a male) on July 18, 2013, at Wolong, making her the mother of 10! Both mother and her newest cub are doing well.

Eight-year-old Su Lin had a normal estrus this past spring at Bi Feng Xia and mated naturally several times but did not produce any cubs this year. Regardless, she is doing well and living at Bi Feng Xia. Ten-year-old Mei Sheng mated naturally this year at Bi Feng Xia, too, but we don’t know yet whether he has sired any cubs, as DNA tests are not performed right away to determine fatherhood.

Little Zhen Zhen, now six years old, is currently weighing in at a robust 220 pounds (100 kilograms)! She mated in 2013 and produced a cub that, sadly, did not survive. Zhen Zhen is also living at Bi Feng Xia and doing well.

Megan Owen is an associate director for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, News about Zhen Zhen.

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News about Zhen Zhen

Zhen

Zhen Zhen relaxes after her 3rd birthday festivities in 2010.

Back in February, we reported with excitement that panda Zhen Zhen had bred for the first time and was the first female at the Bi Feng Xia center in China to do so in 2013 (see post Panda Zhen Zhen). For newer panda fans, Zhen Zhen is Bai Yun and Gao Gao’s youngest daughter and moved to China in September 2010. Well, it is with some sadness that we share the latest news on Zhen Zhen: On May 6, Zhen Zhen gave birth to a single cub; however, the cub died soon after birth.

Of course, we know that Zhen Zhen, who will be six years old this August, will have many more opportunities to breed and have cubs in the future, and there is no reason to doubt that she will be successful down the road. An early May birth is very unusual for pandas, with most of the births being recorded between July and September, after a variable period of diapause and a 50-day period of gestation.

Megan Owen is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Our Pandas in China.