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giant panda conservation program

116

Speaking to Friends about Pandas

Xiao Liwu is just one example of our panda conservation program’s success.

Recently, I had the opportunity to give a presentation to several hundred San Diego Zoo Global donors at a Circle of Friends Holiday Breakfast. I presented an overview of our science-based, collaborative panda conservation program, focusing on both the challenges we’ve faced and the incredible successes we’ve enjoyed over the past 16 years. With hundreds of the Zoo’s friends gathered, we celebrated the birth of Xiao Liwu and the brighter future for pandas that Bai Yun, Gao Gao, and Shi Shi have given us.

Of course, the birth of Xiao Liwu was more than a joyous occasion; it was also a historic milestone for giant pandas and the San Diego Zoo. With the birth of Xiao Liwu, Bai Yun became the second-oldest female to have ever given birth in captivity, as well as the most successful panda mom outside of China. And, thanks to Bai Yun, our Giant Panda Conservation Program became the most successful breeding program outside of China. This short list makes me incredibly proud! And I also have to admit that it is simply wonderful to have yet another incredibly cute panda cub to watch every day!

Our giant panda story really began in earnest back in 1996, with the arrival of Bai Yun and Shi Shi. Back then, we really knew very little about giant pandas. At the time, we knew that giant pandas were solitary mammals and that they fed exclusively on bamboo. We knew that pandas were seasonal breeders, and that the females were only receptive to breeding for a few short days during each cycle. We also knew that giant pandas were critically endangered and that the track record for captive breeding was very poor. We knew that we had a daunting task ahead of us and an understanding that because giant pandas garner immense public attention, the world would be watching us as we embarked on this critical conservation mission.

Under the leadership of Don Lindburg, we put together a Panda Team that included scientists, animal care specialists, and educators. Ron Swaisgood made incredible inroads at the Wolong breeding center in China and initiated more than a decade of invaluable scientific discovery regarding giant panda behavior and communication. Throughout this period, numerous people from the Giant Panda Team visited Wolong to do conservation research (including myself), and members of the Wolong team visited us here. These exchanges proved invaluable for scientific research and for improving how we managed giant pandas, during the breeding season and beyond.

Since the birth of Xiao Liwu, I have spent much time thinking about how much we have achieved in the past 16 years, as well as about how much we still need to learn about these amazing animals. The plight of giant pandas has improved in some ways since 1996, but they are still critically endangered, and so, through our conservation research program, and with the support of our many friends, we continue to work toward a brighter future for giant pandas.

After I gave my presentation to our Circle of Friends, I spent a great deal of time speaking to people in the group. It was incredible to experience the outpouring of interest in giant pandas and the support for the conservation work that we do. As I looked around the tent, I saw a number of people who had been volunteers in support of our conservation programs over the years: volunteers who had been part of our panda research team in San Diego, and volunteers who have helped us connect our giant pandas to the public at large. I feel a deep debt of gratitude to all of our supporters, without whom we could not have achieved everything that we have, for giant pandas and the other species and habitats we work with.

Thank you all for your support, and I wish you the happiest of holiday seasons!

Megan Owen is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Polar Bears and Climate Change.

149

Birthday Celebration

Su Lin’s fifth birthday is our chance to kick off a whole week of panda birthday celebrations. Along with Su Lin’s birthday (watch video), we are celebrating Zhen Zhen’s third and the first birthday of little Yun Zi. This joyous celebration has prompted me to think back to the beginning of the panda program, which began in earnest when Bai Yun and Shi Shi arrived in San Diego in the fall of 1996. It is incredible to me that the giant panda conservation program at the San Diego Zoo has been ongoing for about 14 years!

I arrived at the San Diego Zoo and joined the panda programs research team. This has always been a cutting-edge conservation research program and has capitalized on all the resources that the San Diego Zoo has to offer. In the 14 years since the program began, we have made tremendous strides in understanding the behavioral ecology, reproductive physiology, genetics, sensory ecology, and husbandry needs of the giant panda. Our efforts have been intensely collaborative, and our success is due to the fact that researchers, animal care staff, and veterinarians have worked as a team unified for panda conservation. We have also capitalized on the relationships that have been developed over the years with panda researchers, veterinarians, and keepers in China, specifically at the Wolong Breeding Center. Although the Wolong facility was devastated by the 2008 earthquake, efforts there for the giant panda have continued.

Giant pandas are still critically endangered. With about 1,600 animals left in the wild, there is still much work to be done toward their conservation. However, we are proud of our efforts over the past 14 years and hope visitors to the San Diego Zoo will take the time to celebrate our pandas with us. Happy birthday Su Lin, Zhen Zhen and Yun Zi!

Megan Owen is a conservation program specialist for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Zhen Zhen: Great Listener.

Join us on Tuesday, August 3, at 11 a.m. for an online chat with Megan!