Even if it means cloning and "panda porn," China wants more bears.

Cubs lounge in the nursery of the Wolong Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center.  Credit: Sam Wang

SHANGHAI—On a recent sunny afternoon at Wolong Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center in the mountains of Sichuan, Chinese veterinarians huddled around a portable ultrasound machine. Nearby, their subject, six-year-old Zhang Ka, munched on the bamboo in her cage, apparently unaware that she was at the center of a controversial conservation campaign into which the Chinese government is pouring millions of dollars.

That morning, China had another addition to a population that hovers on the brink of extinction but is crucial to the nation’s image. Zhang Ka had given birth—after a difficult artificial insemination, a five-month pregnancy and 34 hours of labor—to a pink, hairless, half-pound cub, the largest in China’s 43-year history of artificial panda breeding.

Pandas are notoriously finicky maters, especially in captivity. Females are in heat an average of only three days a year. The Ministry of Science and Technology claims on its website that the country now has “the highest level panda reproduction technology in the world.” At Wolong, veterinarians anesthetize and inseminate the female population every spring. A few hours away, at the Chengdu Research Base, pandas are shown videos to get them in the mood—a practice that the Chinese press has dubbed “panda porn.”

China bankrolls its panda-spawning initiative by leasing animals to foreign zoos. (A U.S. zoo pays $1 million dollars a year to host one.) The program has been hugely successful, sparking a population increase of, well, Chinese proportions. Five toddler pandas slept 10 meters (11 yds) from where the veterinarians examined Zhang Ka, products of an unprecedented breeding boom last year. This year, the veterinarians again broke records, with 27 cubs born in China in August and September—17 of them at Wolong.

Some conservationists say the government is pushing for more animals at the expense of their physical and psychological welfare.

A trainer feeds Zhang Ka bamboo after her ultrasound exam.  Credit: Sam Wang

“It’s a cub factory,” said Kati Loeffler, a wildlife health consultant who spent nearly three years working as a research veterinarian for the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Sichuan. “The breeding centers are paid for the number of cubs that are born.”

In the wild, and at U.S. zoos that practice artificial insemination, Loeffler said, panda cubs stay with their mothers for 18 to 24 months. In China, cubs are weaned at three months so their mothers will go into heat the following spring, producing twice their usual number of offspring—an arrangement that can cause stress for the mother and psychological and nutritional problems for the cub.

Such cubs are then unprepared for another of China’s goals for its panda population: reintroduction back into the wild.

In May, Wolong released a panda bred in captivity for the first time. Four-year-old Xiang Xiang had been graduating into larger, more natural pens prior to his release, but some scientists said the reintroduction was premature—and accompanied by an inappropriate media circus.

Indeed, some say China should be paying more attention to habitat conservation than breeding and reintroduction. Sichuan, home to 80 percent of the world’s wild pandas, is at the center of the government’s “Go West” development campaign. Its dense, bamboo-filled forests, favored by pandas, are imperiled by road and housing construction as well as by more traditional threats like logging, hunting and the collection of medicinal plants. Between 1974 and 1989, China lost half of its panda habitat to fast-paced economic reforms.

At best, the government is neglecting conservation. At worse, it is encouraging habitat decline. Environmentalists are appalled by a state-sponsored company in Sichuan that offers tourists opportunities to track pandas for two-and-a-half hours for the price of $45 a person.

The World Wildlife Fund has been working on panda conservation in China since 1980. (Its dedication to the issue is underscored by its selection of an image of the panda as its logo.) The WWF’s works toward habitat preservation through enlarging protected areas as well as educating locals on alternatives to panda-threatening activities.

“We think the very best way of preserving pandas is by preserving their habitat,” said Li Lin, head of conservation strategy for WWF China. “If there’s no habitat, no matter how much you breed them in captivity, there’s no place for them to go in nature.”

WWF’s efforts were recently complicated by a government-funded report that suggests there may be twice as many giant pandas living in the wild as previously thought. In June, scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of Cardiff in the UK published a study in Current Biology in which they used DNA fingerprinting of panda droppings found at Sichuan’s Wanglang Nature Reserve to determine that 66 pandas inhabited the reserve. Using population ratios from a survey conducted seven years earlier, the scientists estimated the nationwide panda population at between 2,500 and 3,000. A previous estimate by the State Forestry Administration and the WWF had put the number closer to 1,600.

“The over-optimistic estimation is the extrapolation of a small area to the whole panda population,” Li said of the new study, pointing out that good management and migration through the reserve means that panda population density in Wanglang is above average.

The report’s questionable methodology may be emblematic of China’s overall panda plan. While conservationists point to basic areas in which veterinary science is sorely lacking, China is equipping centers with expensive equipment like radiograph machines and—most spectacularly of all—working to clone the animal.

“They want the hot, sexy, flashy stuff,” said Loeffler, the wildlife consultant. “They want the molecular biology. They want the genetic engineering. But in the meantime, they’re not feeding their animals well; they’re not giving the animals something to play with—really basic things like that.”

“There’s an enormous dichotomy,” she continued, “between what’s needed and where they want to be.”

Originally published October 12, 2006

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