PETER FROST enlists the help of his granddaughter Lizzie Frost to explain why the giant panda is far less threatened than (but every bit as cute as) it used to be.
LAST week in my Ramblings, I was delighted to bring you the news that here in Britain the large blue butterfly had been brought back from the brink of extinction.
My granddaughter Lizzie sent me a message saying how much she welcomed that good news but thought she might just be able to top it.
Lizzie has just started a teaching job for six months in China before she returns to the University of London next year to study Chinese.
In China she was delighted to fulfil a lifetime ambition and visit the giant panda reserves at Chengdu, and even more delighted with the latest news she heard there.
Just at the time of her visit, Chinese conservation experts announced the iconic giant panda (ailuropoda melanoleuca) has been taken off the endangered list.
Wild panda populations have increased by 17 per cent between 2004 and 2014.
There are now an estimated total of 2,060 pandas living in the bamboo forests of China, of which 1,864 are adults. China also has 67 dedicated panda reserves.
This population increase has meant an improvement in their status, from endangered to vulnerable, on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN’s) Red List.
The improved status confirms that the Chinese government’s reforestation and forest protection efforts are working well. But as always we must not be complacent. The IUCN notes that climate change still threatens to eliminate more than a third of the panda’s bamboo habitat in the next 80 years — hence the vulnerable designation, meaning there is still a risk of extinction.
Lizzie wanted to find out how this improvement had happened.
She knew the Chinese were working hard on conservation efforts. But what exactly have they done to save the panda? She discovered it all seems to be about bamboo. Although officially classified as carnivores, in fact bamboo makes up some 99 per cent of the panda diet.
If bamboo doesn’t flourish, then pandas simply don’t survive.
Each adult giant panda needs between 12 and 38kg (25 to 85lb) of bamboo each day to maintain their energy needs and sustain body weight — essential if they are to breed.
Pandas were once widespread throughout southern and eastern China but now they are limited to areas of bamboo forests.
It is these bamboo forests that the Chinese are not just protecting but also recreating and repopulating with all kinds of wild species including panda.
Ginette Hemley, senior vice-president for wildlife conservation at the environmental charity WWF, which has the panda as its logo, spelt it out in a BBC interview: “The Chinese have done a great job in investing in panda habitats, expanding and setting up new reserves.
“They are a wonderful example of what can happen when a government is committed to conservation.”
The WWF’s work with pandas goes back a long way. Their well-known panda logo was designed by the organisation’s founding chairman, the naturalist and painter Sir Peter Scott in 1961. Twenty years later, WWF became the first international conservation organisation to work in China.
Captive breeding and even artificial insemination have all been tried to increase panda numbers but not always with great success. Both in the wild and in captivity pandas have a very low birth rate and although almost all panda pregnancies result in twins in the wild almost always only one of the cubs survives. Captive breeding and release too has been tried.
In 2007, the first captive-born giant panda ever released into the wild, Xiang Xiang, was killed by wild panda males. Latest available figures suggest there are about 50 panda living in captivity in various zoos outside of China and several hundred living in captivity in China itself.
Just last weekend Lun Lun, a 19-year-old giant panda, gave birth to twins at a zoo in Atlanta, US.
Lun Lun was artificially inseminated, with sperm from Yang Yang, aged 18. The zoo will use sophisticated cub-swapping methods that will rotate the two babies so they each receive adequate care from their mother.
The zoo used this method for Lun Lun’s previous twins in 2013.
Panda cubs are tiny in relation to the size of the mother panda.
Baby pandas weigh only 80 to 150g (3 to 5oz), and are bald and blind for the first eight weeks.
Virtually immobile for the first three months of their lives, they are not weaned until they reach one year of age.
I’ll let Lizzie in China have the last word: “For as long as I can remember I have been concerned about the way nature has been under threat all over the globe.
“So often the cute and cuddly panda was an important symbol for those of us growing up and trying to do something about preserving nature.
“How good it was then to be here in China with the pandas and hear and see for myself how we seem to be winning at least one significant battle for the survival of this iconic species and for nature in general.”
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 9 Sept 2016.
On the morning of publication of this article the Editor of the Morning Star, Ben Chacko, sent me this message,
“Jeremy Corbyn texted me this morning asking me to pass on to you “how much I enjoy his ‘ramblings’ and today’s on the Giant Panda was excellent and loved his granddaughter’s comment at the end. Obviously a journalist in the making!”. Praise indeed.