Our Panda Family

While visiting "our" pandas in China, the author took a moment to take in the beauty of  the panda base at Hetaoping.

While visiting “our” pandas in China, I took a moment to take in the beauty of the panda base at Hetaoping.

It seems like only yesterday that I first started working with giant pandas. In February 1997, having spent the previous four years focused on fieldwork in the Arctic, I was hired on to the San Diego Zoo’s ‘Panda Team’. As the Panda Conservation Program was taking shape, I remember well spending hours collecting behavioral data on Bai Yun and Shi Shi, getting to know the rest of the scientists and animal care staff on the Panda Team, and being introduced to our visiting colleagues from the Wolong breeding center in China. Now, 18 years later, I have the pleasure of seeing both our bears, and our program “grow up”, and of seeing Chinese colleagues–most of whom I first met in the 1990’s–still actively engaged in efforts towards the conservation of giant pandas.

Earlier this month I traveled to China, along with Ron Swaisgood (co-head of our giant panda program), to meet with a range of scientists and wildlife managers and discuss the current status and future directions of panda conservation research program. It was a fantastic trip—productive, uplifting and emotional. It was a trip filled with familiar faces and ample opportunities to visit with long-time colleagues and old friends (both human and panda).

We celebrated our reunion with traditional Sichuan Hot Pot.

We celebrated our reunion with delicious traditional Sichuan Hot Pot.

The first leg of our trip was focused on meetings in Beijing, with our colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Science. We discussed giant panda research efforts in the Foping Nature Reserve over the course of the three days we were there, but of course, there was also the wedding we were invited to: A student we hosted for a year at the San Diego Zoo was thrilled to have his ‘San Diego Family’ attend this important family event.

After a few days, we left Beijing, and headed south to Sichuan Provence, where we were to visit the four panda bases: Bi Feng Xia, Dujianyan, Genda, and Heataoping (aka Wolong). After our long-time collaborator, Mr. Zhou, met us at the hotel in Chengdu, we loaded up and started the drive to Bi Feng Xia base. Five minutes into our drive, we were comparing digital photographs on our phones of our children: amazing to see how they’ve grown! Beautiful smiles of teenagers and young-adults, quickly compared to the beautiful smiles of their toddling counterparts. This ritual was repeated over and over and over again throughout our time in Sichuan, with each colleague we saw, and with seemingly mounting levels of enthusiasm. It felt like a family reunion.

Of course the centerpiece of our family reunion was the pandas, and getting status updates and seeing the San Diego Zoo born pandas was a primary objective for me. With visits to all four facilities under our belts, I am very happy to say that I was able to check in with all of ‘our’ bears, and that all are doing well! Below, I provide updates on each, and pictures of all but Zhen Zhen and Mei Sheng. Because Hua Mei and her cub were in the reintroduction training pens, I had to take the photos at a distance, so they are a bit blurry.

As the first surviving panda cub born in the US, Hua Mei made headlines. Her life has continued to be amazing!

Hua Mei has turned out to be an amazing mother, just like Bai Yun!

Hua Mei b. 1999
Hua Mei has followed Bai Yun’s footsteps in that she has been an incredibly productive mother panda! In 2013, she gave birth to her 11th cub, a male named Hua Long. Currently, beautiful Hua Mei and Hua Long reside at the Wolong Research Base in Hetaoping. This locale–the original panda research base,—was hit hard by the earthquakes of 2008. Amazingly though, most of the animal holding areas are in great shape, and Hua Mei and her cub are living in the first phase reintroduction training area. This means that Hua Long may one day be released to the wild: A very exciting prospect for one of our very own “grandchildren”.

Mei Sheng b. 2003
Mei Sheng is living at the Bi Feng Xia base near Ya’an. Mei Sheng is part of the breeding program, however, he doesn’t seem to have yet taken after his father’s studly ways. Mei Sheng is now almost 12 years old, but successful breeding has been elusive. Regardless, he is a happy and healthy panda with much space to explore and enjoy his time.

Sweet Su Lin is busy raising her second cub.

Sweet Su Lin is busy raising her second cub.

Su Lin b. 2005
Su Lin gave birth to her second surviving cub in 2014. Currently, Su Lin and her beautiful young cub are living at the panda research base at Hetaoping. Her enclosure lies about 100 feet from where her sister Hua Mei is living. I wonder if they know how truly close they are? Both Su Lin and her cub look great, and appear to be thriving.

Zhen Zhen b. 2007
Zhen Zhen resides at Bi Feng Xia, is part of the breeding program, and is doing well. She has given birth twice—one stillborn, and another cub that did not survive. While this is not typical, this does not preclude Zhen Zhen from successfully giving birth and rearing cubs in the future. We are all pulling for her and hope that she will be successful in 2015 if she gets pregnant.

Yun Zi is thriving in his new home.

Yun Zi is thriving in his new home.

Yun Zi b. 2009
Yun Zi was always one of my favorites. At 5.5 years old, Yun Zi is too young for the breeding program. He is living at the research base at Dujianyan and has access to a large outdoor enclosure. These new facilities are beautiful and he is thriving there! A plaque by his enclosure filled me with pride, and reminded me of the mutual respect with which we hold our colleagues: “Yun Zi. Birthplace: San Diego Zoo in America. He is the achievement of scientific and research cooperation between China and America.”

There is still so much for us to learn about giant pandas, and we know that there are many challenges still ahead for us in our efforts to conserve this iconic species. However, the good news is that we are moving forward together, as an extended and international family, with the same goal: conserving giant pandas and giant panda habitat, well into the future.

Megan Owen is an associate director in the Applied Animal Ecology Division, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, What’s Up with Bai Yun?


Little Green Guards Excitement!

The Little Green Guards were excited by our surprising camera-trap discoveries. (Photo by Lei Shi)

The Little Green Guards were excited by our surprising camera-trap discoveries. (Photo by Lei Shi)

The feeling of love and empathy for animals is very much influenced by one’s culture and upbringing. How can people conserve endangered animals if they do not love them? How do people come to love and appreciate animals? These are the kinds of questions I often ponder, and I am eager to find ways to help people, especially children, bond with animals.

Over the last five years, I have been exploring the topic of love and empathy toward animals and learning how to cultivate these sentiments in children who are in my Little Green Guards program. Little Green Guards are children living in conservation priority areas that have an underdeveloped economy and education system. The goal of the program is to build a strong and lasting love for animals in children, ultimately empowering them to become conservation stewards of their natural heritage.

Because personal experience can create deep impressions, it is important to include many field trip opportunities for Little Green Guards to fall in love with animals and nature. In Fanjingshan, China, my collaborators and I recently used our camera-trap research project as a way to introduce local schoolchildren to wildlife that may be difficult to see in the nearby forest.

Before going to the field we explained the science behind our camera-trap research to the children, how the cameras have helped us understand the “secrets” of many amazing animals, some active in the day and some at night. We then tantalized the children with our best photos and the “surprises” we discovered. The children would “Ooh!” and “Aah!” as they looked at the photos—the excitement for camera-trapping was escalating!

Fanjingshan nature reserve biologist Lei Si showed children how to mount a camera trap on a tree. (Photo by Kefeng Niu)

Fanjingshan nature reserve biologist Lei Si showed children how to mount a camera trap on a tree. (Photo by Kefeng Niu)

Out in the forest, we selected a relatively flat area with a sturdy tree. We then showed the kids how to properly install batteries and the memory card, program the settings, and finally mount the camera. When all the preparation was done, the children practiced taking “selfies,” one by one, by triggering the sensor in front of the camera and saying “Qiezi!” (the Chinese version of “Cheese!”). Beyond just having fun, this Little Green Guards lesson allowed us to teach the children not only about animal biology and caring for their wildlife neighbors but also essential life skills so they can develop healthy self-esteem, despite their rural circumstances.

Two Little Green Guards inspect the camera trap,

Two Little Green Guards inspect the camera trap,

The success of the Little Green Guards program will require long-term efforts and reaching out to as many communities as possible around Fanjingshan and other protected areas in China as well as in Vietnam and Madagascar. As the citizens who live adjacent to natural habitats form the front line of defense in protecting local biodiversity, we imagine that our Little Green Guards program may have a substantial positive influence on people’s attitudes toward conservation. We hope that one day every child in the Little Green Guards program will develop affection for wildlife so that when that day comes, we can all smile and say “Qiezi!”

Chia Tan, Ph.D., is a senior scientist in the Conservation Partnership Development Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Have Camera Trap, Will Travel.


Yi Lu Ping An (Have a Good Trip), Yun Zi

The time has come to say goodbye to our good-natured young panda, Yun Zi. Yesterday, January 9, 2014. He embarked on his most momentous adventure yet—a move to his homeland. After crating up easily, our boy was loaded into a vehicle for the trip to Los Angeles, where he caught his flight to China. Thanks to the diligence and careful planning of our staff, he is well prepared for his journey.

The keepers worked to ready Yun Zi for all of the transitions he is about to make. He began crate training some weeks ago, getting used to the transport crate he will live in for a few days as he hops across the pond and heads up to the mountains of his ancestral homeland. As anticipated for such a smart and easy-going boy, he adapted to his new crate easily, spending time feeding inside it and accepting treats from his keepers through the openings of the crate.

Yun Zi Throughout the Years

Yun Zi Throughout the Years

Keepers have also been preparing him for the dietary transition he will undergo. In China, the pandas are not fed the low-starch, high-fiber biscuits and kibble they are used to getting in San Diego but instead receive a specially made formulation of bread that is foreign to our bears. Our keepers have access to that bread recipe and for some time have been whipping it up in our on-site kitchen so that Yun Zi could adapt to this new culinary staple. Thankfully, he had taken to the new bread, perhaps better than any of our returnees ever had.  This means dietary changes in China won’t be a big deal for our boy.

Since he is traveling in winter, staff wanted to prepare Yun Zi for the big change in temperatures he will experience. Keepers had been fattening him up a bit, and he has little rolls of flesh that will serve as extra insulation against the cooler mountain air. He looked nice and robust.

Staff has also prepared videos to leave with Yun Zi’s new Chinese handlers that detail aspects of the training he has received. This will help his new keepers to better understand the commands he has been taught, and, hopefully, will enable them to continue to use his training to facilitate future husbandry and veterinary procedures. Our video contains shots of Yun Zi sitting quietly while having his blood drawn, for example; his training allows this procedure without the use of anesthetic. This is a highly desirable, low-stress way to get biomedical data from him, and we wanted to be sure his new handlers are aware of his capabilities.

Yun Zi isn’t traveling alone on this voyage. He is attended by his primary keeper, Jen, who has been with him from birth. She had been actively engaged in his training, both during and prior to his preparation for departure to China. Yun Zi knows and trusts her, and this will be a comfort to him on his journey. In addition, a veterinarian is accompanying our boy on his flight, should there be any medical concerns to address. We anticipate that will be unlikely.

On Wednesday, the keepers began preparing his food bundles for the trip, and I know they were selecting choice bamboo culm to keep him content on the flight. Jen will ensure he receives regular munchies throughout the trip and will regularly refresh his water and clean up his crate to keep him comfortable. All of the plans and preparations are in place.

All that’s left now is to wave goodbye. 

Farewell, Yun Zi. You were a fun and exciting part of our panda research program. Even from far away, you will always be a member of our San Diego Zoo giant panda family. Yi lu ping an.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.



Panda Photo Contest

Nighttime Zoo: China Celebration is all about celebrating the colorful culture and animals of China, and we wanted to have a photo contest as part of the festivities. It just so happens that one of the Chinese animals we’re celebrating, the giant panda, is also one of the most photogenic animals at the San Diego Zoo. So it seemed like a no-brainer to have a panda photo contest!

So what do you get if you win? You and three friends get the VIP treatment with our Backstage Pass! We’ll also use one second-place winner’s photo as our facebook profile pic. Photos must be taken at the Zoo and they must be of our pandas. See the rest of the terms and conditions, and upload your best panda photos, here. We’re looking forward to seeing all your beautiful bear photography. Good luck!

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Butterfly Jungle Preview Dinner.