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Pandas

why paying for pandas is not so black and white

Wang Wang and Funi came to Australia from China a decade ago. Their relationship is best described as complicated. Despite considerable medical assistance, they have never managed to produce offspring. It has put a big question mark over whether they will be permitted to remain in Australia.

The fate of the two giant pandas may now depend on the outcome of the federal election on May 18. Keeping the couple at Adelaide Zoo includes paying about A$1 million a year to the Chinese government.

It’s just another chapter in the story of an iconic species where politics, economics and international diplomacyoften eclipse conservation considerations.

Captive breeding programme

China currently has pandas on loan (or hire) to 26 zoos in 18 countries. The most recent zoo to join the select list was Ähtäri, Finland, which welcomed two pandas on a 15-year loan in 2018. Denmark’s Copenhagen Zoo is eagerly awaiting two pandas due to arrive in April.

Officially it’s all part of a captive breeding programme to help save the species from extinction. Though their conservation status is no longer “endangered” (improving to “vulnerable” in 2016), there are still just 500 to 1,000 adult pandas left in the wild, in six isolated mountain ranges in south-central China.

The overseas placements augment China’s own 67 reserves dedicated to panda conservation. Any cubs born overseas are the property of China and typically return to China to continue the captive breeding program.

There are still just 500 to 1,000 adult pandas left in the wild, in six isolated mountain ranges in south-central China

But the number of zoo births has been quite low. As the Smithsonian Institution’s “panda guy” Bill McShea has pointed out, pandas in the wild have fewer problems mating or breeding: “In the wild, aggregations of male pandas form along ridge tops in the spring, and a stream of visiting females in heat keeps the mating activity intense.”

Zoos can’t mimic these conditions. Since giant pandas are solitary animals, they are housed separately except for the few days of the year when the female is ready to mate. Because there is no mate choice in captivity, natural mating is rare. Most captive births are the result of IVF treatments.

Although no longer “endangered” there are still just 500 to 1,000 adult pandas left in the wild, in six isolated mountain ranges in China (Credit: Getty Images)

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