China’s giant pandas remain still an endangered species despite the birth of 23 cubs in zoos across the country in the past two months, panda researchers have said.
‘The baby boom began in early July, with 23 cubs born in captivity – 14 at the Wolong research centre, eight in Chengdu and one in Beijing,’ said Zhang Zhihe, director of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Sichuan province.
Since the boom, the total number of giant pandas in captivity in zoos worldwide has topped 300, a target Chinese scientists had set in 2002, said Zhang.
‘It’s good news, but the number is still not big enough for the bears to be taken off the endangered list,’ Zhang was quoted as saying by Xinhua.
China’s panda experts believe the 300 pandas in captivity are the minimum population for the species to reproduce and sustain in 100 years to come.
To achieve that goal, Zhang and his colleagues have worked to expand the population by helping the sex-shy animal breed since the Chengdu base was founded in 1989.
‘The growth in the number of artificially-bred pandas, however, was inevitably accompanied by a decline in the quality and genetic diversity, as many captive pandas are blood relations,’ said Zhang.
Many are the offspring of four giant pandas – Pan Pan and Dong Dong at the Wolong China Giant Panda Protection and Research Centre, and Ha Lan and Lin Nan at the Chengdu base.
Pan Pan alone had 107 offspring, said Zhang.
Panda researchers have, therefore, shifted their focus from quantity to quality, he said. Zoos are now working to avoid in-breeding by swapping either pandas or their frozen sperm.
Meanwhile, training of zoo pandas to live in the wild has topped the agenda as researchers hope the bears will eventually return to the forests.
‘The wild training is essential to improving panda’s survival skills in the wild environment,’ said Zhang Zhihe. ‘If the training proves successful, it will eventually help pandas restore their wild nature and save the species from extinction.’
Under both the programmes, pandas under training are expected to live in the wild on their own, while zoo workers will observe them through surveillance cameras. If they need help, the workers will show up dressed in costumes that make them look like giant pandas, in order to reduce the animals’ reliance on humans.
Giant pandas are the world’s most endangered species. About 1,600 live in the wild.