Sunday, 25 July 2010

Reintroduction adventure

Scientists have released four pregnant captive pandas into a large but fenced-in area of bamboo forest in the hope that their cubs - once born - will take to life in the wild.

It sounds like a convoluted reintroduction protocol doesn't it? After all, why not just release some pandas into the wild? Well the only time that was been tried - in 2006 - it was not a resounding success. The male panda Xiang-Xiang turned up dead within a year with injuries suggesting he'd got into a scrap with other pandas. When I was in China in March, I was lucky enough to get an interview with Zhou Xiaoping, Assistant Chief Engineer at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda at Wolong. He was heavily involved in the 2006 reintroduction effort and was very open with me about the project's shortcomings. "We thought that three years of training was enough for him," he told me. But it wasn't. With hindsight, most people agree that reintroducing a female would have had a greater chance of success: she would be more readily accepted into an existing panda community than a new male that turns up out of nowhere.

Dr Zhou talked through several possible next-steps for the Wolong staff in their effort to reintroduce pandas from captivity into the wild. One of them involved allowing a mother to give birth in a large, naturalistic enclosure where her offspring has only rare encounters with humans and then, when the infant is old enough set it free. I heard that Vanessa Hull of Michigan State University was involved and contacted her when I got back from China to see if I could find anything out. But she was admirably cagey. "I am not able to talk publicly about my work right now, as we are in a transition period that is a bit sensitive," she emailed me.

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald, which is based on a release from China's Xinhua News Agency, reveals that the reintroduction is already underway. I knew the CCRCGP would try something like this but I am surprised at how soon. Unfortunately, my book The Way of the Panda is now at a stage where I cannot add anything substantial. So it will go to press without this interesting latest experiment. That's annoying but inevitable when there's so much good work going on.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Pandas don't like roads

Chinese geneticists make a sound case for panda corridors in some of the most fragmented panda habitat there is.

A paper published online today in the open-access journal BMC Genetics is another important milestone in the advance of panda science.

This is Figure 1 from the BMC Genetics paper, showing the Daxiangling (DXL) and
Xiaoxiangling (XXL) mountains and how the river and road carve them up into four effective fragments.

The belief that fragmented habitat is going to restrict gene flow might be intuitive but such intuition is not enough on which to base serious and expensive management decisions. In this study, a team of Chinese scientists, led by Professor Wei Fuwen of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has a good go at providing the kind of evidence base that will be needed to construct meaningful habitat corridors between isolated pockets of bamboo forest.

When I was in China in March, interviewing scientists for my forthcoming book The Way of the Panda, Wei Fuwen gave me an hour of his time (I'll dig out the photo some time). As we began to talk, he was understandably wary of me, answering my sometimes difficult questions in generalities and frequently stopping the interview to pick up calls to his mobile phone with its implausibly snazzy ringtone or to light another cigarette. But after about 40 minutes, I think he decided I was someone he could trust and he opened up completely. By the end, he’d pulled me round his side of his strangely empty desk to show me a powerpoint presentation he’d just given at some closed meeting or other. He talked to me about the findings of the BMC Genetics study published today (you can get to the preprint PDF here).

He and his colleagues have sensibly homed in on the Daxiangling and Xiaoxiangling Mountains. These are the two most southerly regions in the panda’s range and are home to the smallest and perhaps most fragmented populations. This makes studying them pretty urgent, but the small population size also means that they had a chance of collecting data on most of the animals in the region. They probably got close.

They collected 192 panda scats (poos), got a genotype from 136 of them and resolved these into 53 different animals. This messy business is pretty much the only way to get good data on the population and distribution of pandas in the wild – I have heard of apocryphal stories of a PhD student going to study pandas in China and not seeing a single one for two years. In case you’re interested, this censusing approach was pioneered in the Wanglang Nature Reserve by Professor Wei and others in a paper in Current Biology in 2006. It is also, according to a Scientific American blog post, likely to be used in the Fourth Giant Panda Survey (which will begin next year).

Many of their findings make intuitive sense: pandas stick to bamboo forest; the Dadu River, which runs between the two mountain ranges, appears to have had a big role in keeping pandas from these two regions apart; and the National Route 108, which cuts its way from North to South through both of these ranges has further fragmented things. Still, though you could have predicted this might be the case, we now know it to be true and importantly we also now know just how small is the population size in each fragment, the genetic variation in each isolated population and where action is most urgently needed.

In conclusion, Wei and friends argue that “it is vital to connect currently fragmented habitats and increase the connectivity of bamboo resources within a habitat to restore population viability of the giant panda in these regions.” They also sign off with the idea that “for these small isolated populations reintroductions will be an effective strategy.”

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Pandas for kiwis?

New Zealand wants to swap kiwis for pandas.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key appears to be up for trying to bring down the price of renting a pair of pandas from the People’s Republic of China by offering up a couple of kiwis in return. In an article in the New Zealand Herald this week, Key is reported to have said: “We're a special friend of China. Why couldn't we give them some kiwis? Two for two. Kiwis are worth a lot.”

Indeed they are. But though all of the Kiwi’s kiwis are endangered, why stop there? New Zealand might get more leverage bartering with an even rarer species. This point is made rather nicely by columnist Brian Rudman in a follow-up article in the Herald. The kakapo is far more endangered, he says, with just over 100 individuals left. There’s also the takahe, a giant flightless bird once assumed extinct but rediscovered in the 1940s with an estimated population size of just 250.

But here’s the serious side to this story. I think I have reconciled myself to the way panda loans are currently handled. Just to recap, for those of you that don’t know, a recipient institution will negotiate with the People’s Republic to receive a pair of pandas (male and female) for a long-term, usually 10-year period. They have to pay for the privilege. In the US, the price currently stands at US$500,000 per panda pair per year, money which is ploughed back into the conservation of wild pandas in China – either directly or though building the infrastructure in the country. In addition, and very importantly, the recipient institution must commit to carrying out research on their pandas, something that has radically transformed our understanding of this species. Few zoos that receive pandas on loan recoup their outlay through increased gate receipts. But they know this before they sign; they are prepared to go ahead for the less tangible educational, research and public relations opportunities that having pandas opens up.

I am not, however, comfortable about putting an explicit price on rarity implied by the rhetoric over kiwis and pandas. II haven’t quite worked out why, but I feel that it is one important step further and not very different from the money-making motivation behind the illegal trade in endangered species that sees some very strange people paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to (illegally) obtain a panda skin to drape on their wall. Am I right? I would welcome your thoughts.

It is perhaps rather telling that John Key, before he became Prime Minister, was a banker. I do hope the Chinese will be above this grubby bartering.