This summer, panda conservation efforts reached a major milestone: the population of pandas in zoos and breeding facilities reached 300 individuals. This goal number, one set years ago by a group of international scientists, is believed to be the point at which the captive population will be a self-sustaining entity capable of acting as a buffer against whatever difficulties might be experienced by the wild members of the species. Three hundred individuals should provide the panda with the resilience to survive even if the wild population disappears.
It’s not an exact science, however. This number is an estimate, not a perfect assessment of the state of the captive population. For example, if the genetic composition of these breeding-center bears does not reflect the composition of their wild counterparts, then the species will still be at a major disadvantage if the wild bears disappear. Unfortunately, we know that some captive pandas, those that have been extraordinarily successful at breeding over the years, are overrepresented in the managed-care population. Pan Pan, Bai Yun’s father, is a perfect example of this. So many bears of the Wolong population are his descendants, as are cubs born at the San Diego Zoo and National Zoo. While this may be good news for Pan Pan and the genes he carries, it’s not such good news for those rare genes hidden inside those males that haven’t mastered the art of breeding in a captive facility. And those rare genes could confer some special form of adaptability that could be necessary for the survival of the species down the road.
For this reason and others, it is still critical to work toward conservation of wild pandas. Efforts to protect wild places where pandas live have been underway for some time, as China has increased the number of reserves in the last decade or so. Development of corridors between panda habitat is a hot topic of discussion. And the release of captive-born pandas to good panda habitat is just around the corner.
Three hundred is a good number, a significant step in the conservation of the black-and-white bear. It’s another reason for hope in the gloomy landscape of endangered species preservation. Though the panda is not out of the woods, we may yet see the time when wild numbers also rise to a point that researchers feel the species will be safe from extinction risk. That would be a milestone, indeed.
Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, So Much for Teflon…
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