Unlike many of my San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG) colleagues that have traveled to China, I wasn’t sent there to accompany one of our young pandas on their journey home. Mine was unlike any other China trip. Situated in the heart of China lies a small city with just over 600,000 people. The city of Dujiangyan is in the Sichuan Province, just 45 miles from Chengdu, the country’s 7th largest city by population. The Sichuan province is best known for their extremely spicy food, and one other thing, the giant panda!
This connection was obvious from the moment I stepped off the airplane. Littered throughout the airport are panda souvenir shops, mock habitats filled with plush giant pandas, and tourists decked out in panda garb. Several street corners in Dujiangyan are decorated with oversized giant panda statues arranged in various “panda-like” postures. Just about anything you can imagine has a panda on it. You want a panda pot holder or shower curtain? You got it—you can even pick up panda green tea and panda cigarettes.
Late last year, Dr. Megan Jones, a SDZG veterinary pathologist, and I set off to China to teach a Giant Panda Pathology International Exchange training workshop in Dujiangyan. Working with the recently built Dujiangyan Giant Panda Rescue and Disease Control and Prevention Base, which aims to rehabilitate sick and geriatric giant pandas and red pandas, we were tasked with teaching the first of a series of workshops intended to share knowledge and skills in wildlife disease surveillance, investigation, and research.
The beautiful and green-certified facility is located on 125 acres along the foothills of the bamboo forest and currently houses almost 30 giant pandas. The facility also contains a public education center filled with many creative and unique hands-on activities, including a real giant panda skeleton and—my favorite—a digital, interactive, panda necropsy table complete with an overhead surgical lamp!
The pathology workshop was comprised of 25 Chinese veterinarians, managers, and technicians from 18 different panda facilities throughout China, as well as 4 interpreters and 9 instructors from various international facilities. The main focus of this workshop was developing necropsy, or post-mortem exam, skills through a series of lectures and hands-on wet labs. Necropsies are an essential tool for making accurate diagnoses and ultimately determining the cause of death, just like a human autopsy. The lab portion of the workshop enabled the participants to hone their necropsy skills using rabbits. These skills include taking accurate measurements and photos, practicing proper tissue sampling techniques for histology and future testing, and ensuring all gross lesions are accurately described and recorded in the final report.
These tools and techniques will help the Chinese determine the best conservation strategies for the giant panda populations in China. This workshop has been in the making for over 20 years! Thanks to the hard work of many experts in the field, including SDZG’s Wildlife Disease Laboratories Director, Dr. Bruce Rideout, as well as the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda, disease investigation will become an integral part of panda conservation, a necessity for any conservation plan.
This is just another great example of how the San Diego Zoo is helping the fight against extinction globally.
Megan Varney is a research technician with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.