> How to Save the Giant Panda
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Using New Scientific Techniques to Help Save the Giant Panda

China’s giant panda has become a modern symbol of the country. It has commercial value and is used as a tool for international relationship-building and influence. Today’s best estimate is that there are some 1,600 giant pandas in the wild. Another 266 are held in captivity, about 10% in overseas zoos on a ten-year lease from the Chinese Government.

giant panda

The species cannot survive without human help. Conservation efforts focus on the programmes at three national panda breeding centres in China. These facilities also serve as educational tourist attractions where visitors from around the world can experience the panda as close as possible to its natural habitat, and learn about efforts to save it.

National Panda Survey Begins in 2011

The 2008 Sichuan earthquake caused considerable concern for the Woolong Breeding Centre, home to 150 pandas, and raised questions about the effect on pandas in the wild. In the aftermath of the event, at a meeting in March 2010 hosted by the China State Forestry Administration (SFA) and attended by 50 administrators and scientists, it was announced that a major national survey of giant pandas would begin in 2011. This will be the fourth such survey, the last held 1998-2002.

Professor Fuwen Wei of the Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences has been involved in giant panda conservation for more than 25 years and is a key advisor to the Chinese Government. In the article on Cosmos published online 29 June 2010, Professor Wei discusses the use of new molecular counting techniques to survey the solitary and elusive creatures in the wild.

The hope is that these new scientific methods using DNA profiling will produce some good news – that there are more pandas than previously thought. The possibility of that was signalled by Professor Wei in a 2006 article published in the journal Current Biology, after tests were carried out at Wanglang Nature Reserve. In the test 66 individuals were identified compared to 27 in the last national survey. So the next survey is awaited with much anticipation.

Using DNA Profiling to Count Pandas

The traditional survey technique is to analyze the size of bamboo fragments found in faeces. Taking into account the size of the panda habitat, scientists could then estimate age and number of different individuals. That method will continue where panda densities are known to be relatively low, but for higher population density areas a new technique has been developed to complement the established method.

DNA fingerprinting techniques are now being introduced to identify the number of individuals in a given area. One advantage for scientists is the quantity of panda faeces, and the frequency with which it is left behind. The bamboo the pandas live on has a relatively low nutritional value and must be eaten regularly and often – up to 12kg per day.

So there is plenty of testing material for the scientists to collect. The survey’s accuracy is then greatly enhanced by the micro-satellite analysis of the samples, albeit at a considerably higher cost.

This genetic counting method also allows for estimates of past populations. Professor Wei recounts one finding. “In one dramatic case we found that in an isolated group of pandas the effective population size dropped from 2,570 to 40 in just 300 years. This was almost certainly due to the rapid increase in human population and agriculture in the area.”

Human Intervention to Save the Panda

The panda’s decline is undoubtedly a result of human activities in its habitat, and it has been occurring since the start of human settlement. Professor Wei discusses how more recently populations have been fragmented by the building of highways, and how new hydro-electric power stations in their mountain homes have been damaging to local ecosystems. The results are genetic erosion as breeding groups decrease in size, increased juvenile mortality and overlapping generations.

The good news is that human intervention can save the panda, according to Professor Wei. Where highways have split panda populations into unsustainably small fragments, habit corridors are being planned to allow reintegrations. “We have also begun an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of pandas. We have started translocating female pandas from larger panda populations to smaller populations, to ensure the populations remain genetically viable and do not die off,” says Professor Wei.

Longer term, the plan is to introduce captive-bred pandas into the populations at highest risk of extinction, and to build new population in areas pandas no longer live.

Professor Wei believes that current and future conservation efforts bode well for pandas. “The challenge now is to improve upon the positive changes that have already been made, and to demonstrate to the world the best conservation practices,” he concludes.

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