Endearing yet endangered, hope has been on the rise in conserving these bears
Issue: Mar 2010
A symbol of peace, diplomacy and friendship is endangered but efforts of conservation are paying off
They are simply endearing: a symbol of peace, diplomacy and friendship. In fact come 2011, a pair of giant pandas will be making their way to Singapore to spend 10 years here.
The pandas are symbolic of the close relationship between Singapore and China as the Republic celebrates the 20th Anniversary of friendly Sino-Singapore relations and CapitaLand is honoured to pledge a conservation donation to support this 10-year collaborative programme of the giant pandas.
The giant panda is also perhaps the world’s most powerful symbol when it comes to species conservation. It has become the symbol of the World Wildlife Fund or WWF.
The great bears themselves have been facing declining numbers for centuries, no thanks to hunting by humans, climatic changes and in the last century, economic development.
Once found in most parts of southern and eastern China, northern Myanmar and northern Vietnam, its population is now confined to around 20 or so isolated patches in six mountain ranges in China's Gansu, Shaanxi and Sichuan Provinces.
According to a Xinhua news agency report in 2007, 239 Giant Pandas are living in captivity inside China and another 27 outside the country.
The wild population estimates, however, vary; one estimate shows that there are about 1,590 individuals living in the wild, while a 2006 study via a new method that analyses DNA from panda droppings leads scientists to believe that the wild panda population may be as large as 3,000.
Whatever the number of pandas surviving in the wild, scientists and conservationists believe that the giant panda will become extinct in the next century unless more steps are taken to protect them.
Several factors have become threats to panda survival. Among them, poaching and habitat loss.
The good news is while poaching used to be a serious problem in the past, it is no longer considered a major problem thanks to stricter regulations and the decreased demand for panda parts.
However, the main threat of habitat loss remains. Logging is the main culprit. In the Sichuan Province alone, the bamboo habitat shrank by 30-50% between 1974 and 1989. The Chinese government finally banned logging in the panda's habitat in 1998.
Large-scale bamboo die-backs or die-offs occurs naturally, further threatening pandas’ food source
That aside, the pandas are also affected indirectly by bamboo’s natural phenomenon: die-back or die-off.
“Bamboo die-back or die-off occurs every 15–120 years, affecting food availability for the panda. Once the bamboo dies it can take a year to regenerate from seed and as long as 20 years before the new plants can support a giant panda population,” says Ang Cheng Chye, curator of the Night Safari.
In the past, when bamboo died off, pandas could migrate to areas with healthy bamboo. However with the current fragmented habitat, this has become more difficult and sometimes impossible.
“The bamboo forests are separated by cleared land and non-bamboo forests, which means the giant pandas have to travel longer distance to feed. This also means that they are exposed to threats from humans and their activities,” says Ang, who will be leading the team of keepers for the two giant pandas on loan to Singapore.
These activities include road construction, hydropower development, and mining.
Halting the decline
To stop these activities from further depleting the panda’s habitat, the Chinese government has been working with various agencies to restore the panda habitat.
Among other measures, human settlements were removed, forestry operations modified, breeding and research centres set up, and the area of habitat under legal protection increased.
According to WWF, by mid-2005, the Chinese government had established over 50 panda reserves compared to 13 just two decades ago. The protected area now covers some 3.8 million acres of forests, protecting over 45% of remaining giant panda habitat.
In addition, improved systems to monitor and patrol the nature reserves have reduced illegal logging and poaching inside the reserves.
“While there are no concrete numbers, there are sightings of pandas in these reserves so we know they are surviving in the jungles,” says Ang.
Green corridors were also created to connect the fragmented habitats.
“Linking the fragmented habitats with corridors of bamboo mean that pandas can find more food and more importantly meet new breeding mates,” says Ang.
Some headway has also been made to educate the locals on how to protect giant panda habitat without compromising their livelihood. This aspect has yielded some results.
Just last month, when a 100-kilogramme panda was spotted being stuck while it was attempting to descend from a 50-meter-high cliff in E’bian County, Sichuan province, villagers called wildlife experts to the rescue.
“Panda is China’s national treasure. Nobody dared to touch it,“ one worker explains.
Singapore to promote panda conservation
Ang Cheng Chye is the curator of the Night Safari and the man to lead the team, which will be caring for the pandas when they come to Singapore in 2011
Singapore is also doing its part to promote giant panda conservation. CapitaLand has pledged a donation to support a 10-year collaborative programme to promote its conservation and implement a giant panda breeding programme when Singapore hosts the pair of giant pandas in 2011.
Already the team from the Wildlife Reserves Singapore is preparing itself for the major task. “We will be sending our team of keepers and vet for four study trips to China between this year and next year. We are preparing and training ourselves to handle panda mating and breeding among other things so that we will know exactly what to do when the pair comes under our care,” says Ang.
As a lead up to the big day, CapitaLand INSIDE will take readers on an exclusive behind-the-scenes journey, in the next few months, to see how the Singapore giant panda team prepares for the pandas’ grand arrival.