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Learning from Tai Shan

The giant panda born at Washington, D.C.'s National Zoo has charmed animal lovers. Now he's teaching scientists more than they had expected

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There’s no question the species’ prospects in the wild have improved. Eight years ago, China banned logging in all forests within the panda’s range. To curb erosion, the government’s six-year-old Grain-to-Green Program pays farmers cultivating land on slopes steeper than 30 degrees to leave those fields fallow or plant trees—a policy that also benefits mountain-dwelling pandas. About 60 reserves are set aside for pandas today, up from 13 in the early 1990s. Such measures seem to be helping: a 2004 panda survey by the State Forestry Administration of China and the World Wildlife Fund reported that about 1,600 pandas remain in the wild, which appears to be an increase since the 1980s.

U.S. zoos are beginning to direct larger portions of their panda funds to conserving the animals in the wild. Of the $1.4 million that the National Zoo pays China annually, about $200,000 supports fieldwork. Zoo staff have trained hundreds of Chinese conservation professionals in techniques such as using satellites to assess habitats and setting heat-sensing camera “traps” to document animals. In the past year, the cameras have snapped their first photos of giant pandas (along with nearly 25 other mammal species). Researchers are eager to outfit some pandas with radio transmitters to track their movements, but China has stopped granting permission for such studies in recent years, worried the practice might harm the animals. The decision has slowed research in pandas’ native habitat, some of the steepest and most difficult to traverse forests in the world. “Radio telemetry is how we learn about wildlife,” says National Zoo ecologist William McShea. “At least 80 percent of what’s known about black, polar and grizzly bears, for example, is based on radio tracking of the animals.”

Other scientists are working to restore panda habitat. The Memphis Zoo, whose pandas Ya Ya and Le Le are just now approaching sexual maturity, is spending part of its panda fees to restore 2,000 acres of bamboo forest adjacent to Foping Nature Reserve, in Shaanxi Province, which has the highest panda density of any reserve. Planted last summer, the bamboo is expected to be thriving within three years. According to the zoo’s research coordinator, John Ouellette, the restored area “will provide a corridor between the reserve and a large block of undeveloped forest where pandas have been spotted.”

Despite China’s burgeoning human population and economy, scientists are optimistic that the country will remain committed to protecting the species. “Over the past decade, there’s been a tremendous change in the attitude of the Chinese government,” says Donald Lindburg, head of giant panda conservation programs at the San Diego Zoo, which has produced the only other surviving U.S. cubs. “As the world has become more aware that China is the only place that pandas live, there’s a huge sense of national pride. China will never allow this species to go extinct.”

Although Chinese breeding centers typically take cubs from mothers before they reach 6 months of age so that females will go into estrus again, Tai Shan (and the San Diego cubs) are being allowed to stay with their mothers until they’re at least a year and a half old. (Once the cubs turn 2, under the terms of the panda loan agreement, they will be sent back to China.) Scientists say removing 6-month-old cubs may hinder the development of normal adult behaviors, including mating. “We suspect that many of the behavioral problems we see in captivity stem from how we’ve been rearing the animals,” says Stevens. Another problem may be U.S. zoos’ practice of keeping giant pandas in male-female pairs, whereas in the wild competing males may fight one another during the breeding season. “It’s possible that captive males are aggressive toward females because they don’t have anyone else to fight with,” says Wildt.

These days, Tai Shan is no longer under 24-hour surveillance, but he still receives intense scrutiny. Veterinarians regularly measure and weigh him; take his temperature, respiration rate and heart rate; and record developmental milestones such as when his eyes opened (7 weeks), teeth emerged (14 weeks) and nose turned from pink to black (6 months). He’s growing faster than the other U.S. cubs, and he has displayed certain behaviors sooner than expected. In late January, the precocious 6-month-old scent-marked for the first time, a record.

Tai Shan hasn’t outgrown his appeal. Watching him gambol with his mother in the Fujifilm Giant Panda Habitat, which includes two – soon to be three – outdoor park-like areas and their three – soon to be four - indoor 25- by 30-foot, glass fronted enclosures, the crowds are reduced to babbling. “He’s so cute!” “Awwww.” To Stevens, such a reaction is not surprising. “Pandas retain even in adulthood many characteristics of human babies,” she says, referring to the animal’s round face and body, high forehead, and big forward-facing eyes. “We’re genetically programmed to find them appealing.” Stevens, who has worked at the Zoo for 28 years with more than 30 species, says “the public’s passion for pandas far exceeds that for any other animal.”

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