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Isopanda - Ähtäri Zoo

Giant Panda

Ailuropoda melanoleuca

The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is an endangered bear species living only in China, also known as ‘panda bear’, ‘bamboo bear’ or simply ‘panda’. The species is a symbol of nature preservation all over the world.

The giant panda is native to the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi in China, where it lives in the mountain ranges of Qionglai, Minshan, Qinling, Daxianling, Xiaoxiangling and Ling-Shan in small patches of forest. There are only ca. 2,020 individuals living in the wild (a 2017 estimate by China’s State Forestry Administration), and the current living area of the species in China is under 1% of its original distribution.

The giant panda is a symbol of nature preservation in China, and to ensure its survival a conservation centre has been founded under the State Forestry Administration of China: the China Center for Conservation and Research of the Giant Panda CCRCGP, with 422 individuals in enclosed protection (ex-situ conservation) in order to safeguard the survival of the species under all conditions. The panda population in the wild is threatened by animal diseases, the spreading of human activity to the mountains, the loss of bamboo forests, and the low genetic diversity in splintered, small populations.

Under the current conditions, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF International, 2007) recommend that in addition to the Chinese conservation programme, ex-situ conservation is necessary to support the conservation efforts for the wild populations of species in such situations as the panda.

The CCRCGP conservation programme has finally been able to increase the number of pandas living both in the wild and in ex-situ conservation, and in 2016 the IUCN was able to change the species’ conservation status from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’.

Ähtäri Zoo and Finland will carry out a project for the conservation of the giant panda in collaboration with the CCRCGP, China’s State Forestry Administration’s nature preservation department, and several research institutions. The background of the panda conservation efforts is the co-operation of China and Finland in forest and environmental matters for over 40 years.

The panda couple is being placed in Finland because our climate and the forest environment of the Ähtäri Zoo resemble the mountain forests of Sichuan. The Chinese panda programme is placing 50 to 60 giant pandas outside of China in top zoos of the world in order to safeguard the species in case the animal diseases threatening the Chinese population should pose a risk to the well-being of the populations in the wild and in ex-situ conservation. The spreading of canine distemper is considered especially dangerous.

The pandas are also hoped to breed in the Finnish climate of four seasons: the changing of the snowy winter into bright spring will have a positive effect on the breeding instincts of the pandas.

Ähtäri was chosen as the home of the panda couple also thanks to the zoo’s impressive conservation efforts. Ähtäri Zoo is currently participating in an EU project to safeguard the wild population of the Finnish forest reindeer in Finland and abroad. Ähtäri has also succeeded in breeding the European Mink, which is a critically endangered mustelid species, and is also involved in the international conservation efforts of the snow leopard.

Panda conservation

A joint research and conservation project for the giant pandas and their natural habitat will be carried out in the years 2017 to 2032 by the Ähtäri Zoo and China’s State Forestry Administration’s nature preservation department in the mountains of Qionglai and Minshan in Sichuan. Some work is also being carried out in the mountain areas of nearby Qinling, Daxianling, Xiaoxiangling and Ling-Shan. The mountains form an essential part of the Global Biodiversity Hotspot in South-Western China, which is considered one of the 35 most important nature diversity preservation areas in the world.

Nature preservation in the panda’s native mountains is one of the most important environmental projects in China, supported by the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity, Conservation International, the WWF, and the species conservation programme of the IUCN together with the leading zoos of the world.

Ähtäri Zoo and the State Forest Administration of China have signed a 15-year agreement on participating in the conservation of the giant pandas and the forest nature of the Qionglai-Minshan area. Ähtäri Zoo will fund nature preservation projects in the panda mountains during the agreement period.

A main focus of the project are efforts to safeguard the vitality of the panda populations in the wild, such as the establishment of new conservation reservations, restoring habitats suitable for pandas, and reforestation in areas where pandas have had to move out or disappeared, as well training staff for the conservation preservations. The programme also includes returning individuals born in ex-situ conservation to areas where the panda population has disappeared or is low in genetic diversity. China has been able to slowly increase the number of pandas in the wild, which is the result of long-term efforts of conservation experts to safeguard the preservation of the species by combining ex-situ conservation with strengthening the populations in the wild.

Another joint project is supporting the Dujiangyan panda hospital and participating in veterinary medicine for pandas and animal protection. The Dujiangyan wildlife hospital in Sichuan is a pioneering institution in China, taking care of all pandas found injured in the wild, and developing treatments and vaccines for infectious animal diseases threatening the panda populations in the wild. Currently an essential effort is to develop a canine distemper vaccine suitable for pandas. Six international research institutions are participating in the development work. Ähtäri experts are involved in the development of the Dujiangyan panda centre.

A third joint project by Ähtäri Zoo and other Finnish partners is research on pandas and their forest habitats. Since the 1990s, Finland has been involved in projects by China’s State Forestry Administration and the Chinese Academy of Forestry to research the forests of the panda mountains. The project draws from long-term expert collaboration and, through research co-operation, strengthens the conservation of pandas and panda populations in the wild. The first research projects will be launched in 2018.

The co-operation of the Ähtäri Zoo and China’s State Forestry Administration is divided as follows: 70% of the funds are allocated to the conservation of pandas in the wild and their domestic forests, 10% to the Dujiangyan wildlife hospital, 10% to research, and 10% to administration. The effects and extent of the Ähtäri Zoo project make it one of the most important Finnish efforts in preserving the diversity of nature for future generations.

What kind of species is the giant panda?

The giant panda is a bear, but in many ways it is different from bears. A panda does not hibernate, and its diet consists almost completely of different types of bamboo. The often wondered black-and-white colouring is apparently the result of adaptation to a snowy and rocky mountain landscape and protects the species from predators. Pandas live alone for most of the year, and the cub born in summer follows its mother until it is ca. two years old. The male and female panda encounter briefly in April or May for mating; the estrus of the female often lasts only 36 hours. A male and a female familiar to each other may share a territory in the wild and are usually not aggressive towards each other.

In the Chinese mountains, the giant panda has to face temperatures of -20 degrees Celsius and copes well in snowy conditions, if there is enough bamboo and shelter.

Ähtäri receives bamboo feed from European plantations in vegetable transports a few times a week. In Europe, bamboo is widely cultivated for fibre, decorations, furniture and construction. Only 2% of European bamboo is used to feed pandas.

Chinese giant pandas abroad

China boasts over 1,300 years of history with the giant pandas’ role as goodwill ambassadors. Empress Wu Zetian (624–705) sent giant pandas to the Japanese court as part of diplomatic dialogue between the countries.

In the west, the giant panda became known from the French missionary and biologist Armand David’s (1826–1900) species description and drawings.

The pandas gained global fame as part of the detente between China and the United States, when the pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were placed in the Washington National Zoo in 1972 by the decision of Chairman Mao Zedong and President Richard Nixon. Prior to this, pandas were at the centre of attention when the World Wildlife Foundation WWF chose the giant panda as its international symbol. The original panda logo of the organization was based on the female panda Chi-Chi in the London Zoo.

China donated and loaned giant pandas to zoos abroad as part of the country’s foreign policy until the 1980s when the conservation strategy concerning the pandas was updated and the China’s State Forestry Administration was authorized to control panda conservation and international co-operation in order to save the species. In accordance with the current programme, China requires its partners to offer scientific or technical value to Chinese panda conservation efforts and a significant contribution to the species’ ex-situ conservation programme.

China maintains the International Studbook for the Giant Panda to safeguard the genetic diversity of the pandas. All giant pandas placed around the world (48 individuals currently) are Chinese property, and Chinese top experts participate in monitoring the well-being, veterinary medicine and breeding success of the pandas abroad. As part or the breeding loan agreement, Ähtäri Zoo is funding the conservation of the wild giant panda population and social sustainability in Sichuan. In Europe, there are giant pandas in Vienna, Madrid, Belgium, Edinburgh, and Beuval in France.

Finland and the Ähtäri Zoo are able to offer the pandas the most extensive natural facilities outside of China. Any cubs born in Ähtäri would be valuable for the conservation programme, as cubs born as the result of a natural reproduction cycle are important progenitors for the new giant pandas’ back-to-nature programme which China launched in 2016.

China’s decision to place a panda couple in Ähtäri is a tribute to the good relationship and the countries’ long-term collaboration in the fields of environmental work and forestry.

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