Traveling in China: The Yin and Yang of Pandas


Two kindergartners playing in the yard

The China I am seeing is the embodiment of its Confucian philosophy of Yin and Yang.Two parts in opposition to one another that make a whole. There is modernization but there is also pollution; urbanization but also the uprooting of a rural life, panda preservation but also panda business.
Pandas are a profitable business, and, I think, that is a major reason why the Chinese government has continued to support their preservation. Pandas can be rented to zoos around the country for about a half million dollars per year for a maximum number of years. At the end of that time the pandas must be returned to China.
Paul Schaller in his 1994 book, The Last Panda, decried the practice of renting out the pandas, believing they needed to be returned to the wild.

IMG_0304 IMG_0345 Panda eating bamboo
When our group first entered the Center at Befengxia we were extremely disturbed when we saw the pandas in cages with a comparatively small outside area for a run. It looked very much like a zoo of the 1960's. We had expected to have to wander paths within a large area that was specifically fenced off as a preserve to find the pandas in their natural habitat. The cages were unexpected and disconcerting. However, by the end of our stay, we were ambiguous about the conditions. As we listened to the various lectures and watched the movie "Panda-monium" we became increasingly convinced that the panda as a species could not survive if left to its own devices and, that at least at present, because the research Center had not found a way to successfully re-introduce captive pandas back into the wild, the Center may be the best way to save the Giant panda. In fact, this seems to be the conclusion that the researchers at the panda base have arrived at.

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As they explained, they had concluded that the natural area now left for the pandas could sustain about 3,000 of the bears. However, because of poaching, deforestation, and the dying out of large areas of bamboo and their slow re-growth of 7 to 10 years, as well as the poor fertility rate of the species, the panda, left on its own, would die out. It seemed to be a species destined for extinction. The research Center therefore concluded that if it was to save the species its objective needed to be to "Make more pandas."

Mother and baby

panda with baby

The Center has become a breeding Center. Much of the research being conducted is aimed at finding ways to increase the birthrate. This it is now doing successfully. The idea of the rent-a-panda program fits this objective. The pandas are being rented out as a way of enlarging the gene pool and with the hope that they will breed. The Center is keeping detailed notes of the genealogy of each panda in order to ensure that the breeding is occurring in a large gene pool.
The Center continues to study panda behavior. As I understand it, the researchers are trying to figure out what panda behaviors are the result of captivity and how to eliminate these behaviors and instead encourage behaviors that would enable pandas to be released back to the wild. The researchers' dreams are to be able to release enough pandas into the wild to maintain a population of 3,000. The Center would then continue to breed pandas to replenish the supply in the wild as it dwindled in order to maintain the population.

Me and ouutside panda

The pandas in the cages at Bifenxia where we were working are the pandas who are presently breeding. Three have given birth this summer. Most are female. One is a male.
While it would have been ideal for the pandas to be left in their natural habitat, it would have been almost impossible to study their behavior or to help them breed. Pandas are solitary and very difficult to spot as Schaller points out over and over again in his book. While poaching has been stopped to a large degree, some continues. At least for the present, the Centers appear to be the best solution to prevent the extinction of the Giant Panda.


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