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Isopanda - Ähtäri Zoo

Giant Panda

Ailuropoda melanoleuca

The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), also known as ‘panda bear’ or simply ‘panda’, is a widely known, distinctive black-and-white bear that has been the global symbol for nature conservation for decades. The species is considered a national treasure in China.

Pandas are native to the mountains of Western China in the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi, in areas where there is a climate of four seasons. On the mountain slopes, winter is rather cold, and spring brings warmth and light fast. The climate in the area is mainly quite humid. Pandas move around on the mountain slopes even at altitudes of 3,000 metres in broadleaf and coniferous forests that grow bamboo. These natural habitats of the pandas have fragmented into small patches due to human action. This complicates the species’ breeding and the preservation of its genetic diversity in the wild.

The panda resembles other bears in many ways, but its digestive system has almost exclusively adapted to eating plants (bamboo). Pandas do not hibernate. Adult pandas typically weigh around 90 to 119kg. They have a thick fur that protects them in cold conditions, and very strong teeth and claws. The panda’s anatomy has evolved to its peculiar diet in other ways as well. For example, one of its wrist bones has developed into an extra finger resembling a thumb, with which the panda handles bamboo and other food very dextrously. In the wild, a panda’s average life span is 20 years. In human care, pandas can live up to 25 years, and some pandas are known to have lived much longer in captivity.

Pandas are generally solitary. Their territories might partly overlap, and pandas do not completely keep away from each other even outside of the mating season. The brief mating season is in spring. The length of the gestation period may vary a lot, because after conception the embryo’s development might pause for a period of variable length and continue after attachment when the conditions are favourable. A newborn cub is very small and helpless. Since the cub develops rather slowly, it requires constant care from its mother in the beginning. In order to safeguard sufficient food, the panda mother usually cares for one cub at a time, although it is very common for the pandas to have twins.

Panda conservation and the Ähtäri panda project

Panda conservation is extremely significant for the survival of other species as well, because pandas play an important role in the renewal of the vegetation of bamboo forests. The conservation of pandas’ natural habitats has also improved the survival of other species in the areas. The conservation of pandas, their habitats and other species in the area is also beneficial to the local people as it improves their quality of life.

A lot of work has been done in order to conserve the pandas, and thanks to the efforts of many co-operation partners (such as China Center for Conservation and Research of Giant Panda, or CCRCGP, and the Chinese WWF), the panda’s conservation status has recently been changed from endangered to vulnerable. The species is still threatened by numerous risks. The conservation of the pandas’ natural habitats requires a lot of work, and infrastructure plans must observe conservation viewpoints, because the area is vulnerable to damages caused by earthquakes. Various infectious diseases such as canine distemper may present an extensive threat to the whole population. The IUCN has also given a warning about the risks caused to pandas and other species of their habitats by the climate change. Species conservation in the wild and the preservation of natural habitats is essential for the conservation of the panda and other species of its habitats. However, various threats presented to the pandas in the wild underline the need to safeguard the survival of the species also by maintaining a sufficient and genetically diverse panda population in ex situ conservation.

In today’s China, the panda is an even stronger symbol of nature conservation than in the Western countries. In order to conserve the pandas, the CCRCGP was established under the Chinese State Forestry Administration SFA. Its responsibilities include safeguarding the survival of the species in all conditions by maintaining a sufficient population in ex situ conservation. It is appropriate to place some of the captive panda population outside of China so that these animals are safe from possible epidemics in China. Placing pandas abroad also benefits international research co-operation. It has already produced a lot of information that is being used to conserve the species both in the wild and in captivity.

The panda project of Finland and the Ähtäri Zoo has been implemented together with the CCRCGP, the nature conservation department of the Chinese State Forestry Administration and various research institutes. In the background, there has also been the co-operation of China and Finland during several decades in forest and environmental matters (for example a project researching erosion prevention on slope areas), in which the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has played an important role. The panda project is a part of a larger entity that focuses on the conservation of forests and the environment and the know-how that Finland and China can share with each other. Environmental consciousness is on the rise in China, too, and various environmental conservation projects that reach the public eye are an important way of advancing this development.

The arrival of a panda couple in Finland is based on a research and conservation co-operation agreement between the Ähtäri Zoo and the CWCA (China Wildlife Conservation Association). The CWCA coordinates panda conservation outside China together with the SFA. Another essential document is the memorandum of understanding between the SFA and the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. During the project, the negotiations on behalf of Finland have been led by Permanent Secretary Jaana Husu-Kallio at the Ministry of Forestry and Agriculture. The pandas arrived in Finland as a so-called breeding loan (a loan with the goal of breeding an endangered species) for 15 years. The realization of the project has required Finnish experts to visit China several times as well as negotiations with China. At various stages, several Chinese experts have also visited Ähtäri.

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