Q & A

How do pandas in captivity benefit panda conservation?

Naturally, the most essential way to conserve the species is in situ conservation of the natural populations and their habitats. Breeding pandas in captivity, planting them back in the wild and other such work cannot replace this. However, the panda population in human care may bring significant additional value to the conservation of the species if the work is well-coordinated, sustained, and rooted in international co-operation. In the 1970s, the panda population in the wild was estimated to be ca. 1,000 individuals. In 2014, the official count was 1,860, and the most recent estimate of the natural population was slightly over 2,000 individuals, which means that the population is still growing.

The pandas kept in captivity in various countries are used for extensive research that helps not only to continually develop the panda’s living conditions in captivity to be more suitable, but also provides invaluable tools for panda conservation in their natural habitat. Such work has been a prerequisite for conserving wild panda populations. The pandas of the Ähtäri Zoo will also help to promote this multinational research work. Participating in research is one of the things that the Chinese contracting party requires of the Ähtäri Zoo. Finnish zoological and veterinary research is of a high level, and the information acquired here will support and complement the Chinese research work.

The panda couple in Ähtäri has a valuable genetic background. If the pandas breed in Ähtäri, their offspring is expected to become parents of pandas to be returned to the wild. The objective is not to increase the population by returning pandas to the wild. A much more important factor is increasing the genetic diversity of the natural populations and returning pandas to habitats from which they have previously disappeared.

A sufficient panda population in captivity in various countries also helps to safeguard the survival of the species for example if a natural catastrophe or an epidemic occurs in their natural habitat. The Ähtäri Zoo is authorized under the EU Council Directives (the Balai Directive). This an important guarantee for that the conditions and procedures at the zoo are of a high level and that the zoo is suitable for the pandas.

When it comes to pandas, keeping them in captivity, moving them to different countries and zoos, and all monetary transactions are strictly controlled, and the location and history of each individual is well-documented. Keeping pandas in captivity does not therefore increase the risk of poaching or illegal catching in the wild, although the financial value of pandas is great. Panda transfers abroad from China are subject to standard CITES procedures to ensure that these transfers do not threaten the vitality or conservation of the natural population.

A key goal for the panda projects of the Ähtäri Zoo and other zoos is to provide information to the public on this and other endangered species and various methods of conservation. Raising awareness is an important way of increasing people’s interest towards conservation of endangered species and their habitats, as well as their willingness to participate. The pandas can be called ambassadors for nature conservation, and they help to keep these important matters in the public eye. For these goals a changing exhibition will be implemented with modern technology in connection with the Panda House. The exhibition will provide the public with more information on pandas and other themes around nature conservation. The facilities of the Ähtäri Hall can also be used for events and exhibitions supporting these themes. The Ähtäri Zoo wishes to co-operate on this issue with the Finnish WWF and other partners.

Why are the pandas coming to Ähtäri?

Finland was selected as the location for the pandas through lengthy negotiations, and during these discussions we weighed several factors such as the history of co-operation and future opportunities. From the viewpoint of the pandas, one of the most important reasons for selecting Finland was the climate which closely resembles the pandas’ natural habitats. For the physiology of the pandas, the four distinct seasons are important, and natural breeding is most likely to happen in conditions where a cold winter quickly turns into a warm spring while the amount of light also increases. For pandas, this is a clear signal that breeding season has begun.

Pandas thrive in a cool climate, and winter snow is normal in their natural habitats. Even the coldest temperatures and large amounts of snow are not a problem for the pandas if there is enough quality food and shelter available. For these reasons, experts have estimated that in Finland the pandas will be able to live in conditions typical for the species and have a good opportunity to breed naturally. The Finnish winter at its harshest is colder than in the pandas’ natural habitats, but this problem can be solved by providing the pandas with constant access to warm shelter. For instance, at the Toronto Zoo, pandas have thrived in similar climate conditions.

The Ähtäri Zoo has participated in conservation projects for various species over several decades. The best example is probably the Life project (an EU project) of the Finnish forest reindeer, where the forest reindeer were planted in areas from where the population had disappeared. Especially this kind of nature conservation work that also focuses on indigenous species was an important reason for selecting Ähtäri as the location of the pandas. The Ähtäri Zoo also participates e.g. in an international snow leopard conservation project. Additionally, the Ähtäri Zoo has succeeded in breeding endangered species such as the European mink in captivity. This conservation work is one of the main reasons why the Chinese wanted to place the pandas in Ähtäri.

Where do the Ähtäri pandas come from and why have these pandas been chosen?

Both of the pandas that came to Ähtäri have been born and raised in human care, in captivity, at CCRCGP panda centres in the Sichuan province. The female, Jin Baobao (studbook number 941, born 20 September 2014) was born at the Dujiyangyan panda centre, and the male, Hua Bao (studbook number 867, born 10 July 2013) at the Bifengxia panda centre in Ya’an.

The parents of both pandas were born in captivity, but a majority (7/8) of their grandparents were born in the wild.

The selection of this panda couple was preceded by extensive research and negotiations by various experts. In China, the ancestry of pandas is well known, and Jin Baobao and Hua Bao are genetically valuable according to studbook studies. They are not related to each other, which is a common problem with pandas in captivity. Their vitality is evaluated as strong and the chances of natural breeding good. For the future of the species, it is important to avoid artificial insemination and strive for natural breeding even in captivity. This will stop artificial insemination from becoming a negative selection factor for the species’ genetic diversity in the long run. The Chinese are well aware of this risk, and the factor is observed in the selections. Therefore, also from the viewpoint of the “back to nature” program, Jin Baobao and Hua Bao are an especially valuable couple.

 

How are the living conditions of the pandas in Ähtäri?

At the Ähtäri Zoo, the pandas have their own Panda House where the requirements typical to the species have been observed as closely as possible. In the house, both pandas have a 200m2 indoor enclosure shaped in accordance with their natural habitats to resemble the slopes of the Himalaya, as the pandas thrive in slightly sloping terrain. Outside, they have a 4,000m2 area that has been divided by a fence into two outdoor enclosures. Both inside and outside, the pandas have opportunities for climbing. Climbing is important for pandas for temperature regulation and because they often find high places to be safe and peaceful. Climbing is also a fun activity for the pandas.

In the outside and inside enclosures, there are water elements (a creek and a pool) that are important in enabling typical behaviour especially during mating season. However, pandas enjoy water games year-round. The pandas are offered various toys and other varying stimuli, and stimulation is continuously developed in order to observe individual preferences and avoid boredom. Successful stimulation is an essential factor in safeguarding the animals’ mental well-being and one requirement for breeding.

Pandas are generally solitary but even in the wild they do not avoid each other as much as previously thought. The territories of wild pandas are loosely bounded and may partly overlap, and pandas may encounter each other in various situations without conflict even outside the mating season. Therefore complete separation in captivity does not seem justified, although pandas are not social animals. In Ähtäri, the pandas can smell, hear and see each other in some parts of their enclosures in order to enable social interaction. If necessary, they can also be separated more completely if this seems to cause the animals stress. The facilities have been planned so that the pandas can also be moved from one enclosure to the other for variety, and the enclosures can also be combined for instance during the mating season.

Inside, both pandas have a smaller, two-part rest area hidden from the public, which can be used e.g. when the pandas need their peace and quiet. These facilities can also be used when training the pandas or when the vet needs to examine the animals and monitor their health more closely. The pandas can also be briefly confined to these facilities so that the keepers can safely clean up other areas of the enclosure or perform repair or alteration work.

Previously, pandas have not bred well in captivity. This has been considered an indication of pandas not thriving in captivity. The recent decades, however, have seen the production of a lot of new research data about pandas, which has helped to develop their conditions to better enable species-typical behaviour. Stimulation has also received more attention. This is probably part of the reason why breeding results in captivity have improved significantly.

The Ähtäri Zoo is using prior research data, recommendations, and experiences from various zoos so that the panda’s living conditions can be as species-typical and appropriately stimulating as possible. In addition to its own competence and direct consultation with Chinese experts, the Ähtäri Zoo uses recommendations from various organizations on conditions and management principles suitable for pandas. The panda facilities of the Ähtäri Zoo are among the largest in the world, and procedures will be developed continuously with the latest research data and experiences in mind.

How are the pandas fed in Finland and where does the bamboo come from?

Both in the wild and in human care, pandas mostly eat bamboo. In the wild, the pandas eat almost exclusively various parts of bamboo, but occasionally they might eat e.g. small amounts of meat. Also in human care pandas eat mostly bamboo. In addition they are offered panda cakes baked to a precise recipe, or ready-made leaf-eater biscuits that provide them with additional minerals and protein, as well as some additional energy. In addition to these, the pandas can be offered small amounts of carrot, sweet potato and apple.

The Ähtäri Zoo currently acquires it bamboo from Netherlands from a supplier with a long experience of growing bamboo and delivering it to pandas in European zoos. The bamboo is transported from the Netherlands in flower and vegetable trucks the same ways as many vegetables are transported from Continental Europe to Finland. At the moment, bamboo is ordered to Ähtäri once a week, but order frequency will be changed if necessary. In Ähtäri, there is a separate, cool bamboo storage room where the bamboo will keep fresh and moist for a long time. Pandas are selective in their diet – they do not accept all varieties and there may be individual preferences. They may also seasonally change their favourite varieties and whether they like to eat leaves or bamboo shoots of different ages. This is why the pandas’ appetite and preferences are closely monitored in Ähtäri, and bamboo is ordered according to the animals’ preferences. In Europe, bamboo is widely grown for ornamental and garden uses, and only a tiny portion of cultivated bamboo is used to feeding pandas.

In Finland, there is also the ongoing ProAgria project that aims to cultivate overwintering bamboo species in Finland. If this project succeeds, some of the bamboo for the pandas may be grown in Finland in the future. We will also be monitoring the markets always trying to find the best possible alternatives from the viewpoints of the pandas and the environment.

How is the relationship between the pandas and their keepers?

The pandas in Ähtäri have been with people for their whole life. They are accustomed to their familiar keepers. With adult pandas, for safety reasons the keepers never go in the same enclosure with them, because while pandas are seldom aggressive, when frightened or nervous they are dangerous. With a safety fence in between, good relationships with the staff are maintained continuously. This is important for the animals for several reasons: a familiar person’s presence may calm the animal, and the pandas can also be taught many skills that facilitate handling, such as holding out a paw for taking a blood sample or peeing into a cup beneath a well cover to give a urine sample. This way, the animals’ health can be monitored without causing them unnecessary stress by anaesthesia or coercive measures. Training is always performed using positive reinforcement, which means that training is always done with the animal’s well-being as a priority.

Training is always also stimulating, as it brings activities to the panda’s day and gives him opportunities to choose and to solve problems. These further promote the animals’ well-being as they imitate situations that the animal has to resolve in the wild as well.

The pandas are taught new skills, but they are not taught actual tricks. The only purpose of training is to promote the animal’s well-being and safe handling, as well as to decrease stress and create a good relationship between the animal and the human. The pandas are not trained for instance for public displays.

Will the pandas be returned to nature?

Returning pandas that have lived and grown in captivity under human care back to nature is not practically feasible, and it would also be detrimental to the animals’ well-being. China started a project in 2003 that aims to reintroduce pandas back to nature. The project’s second phase started in 2010, and now young pandas are being returned to nature through a special adaptation programme. The implementation of the programme has been preceded by extensive planning by several experts. The planning work has included consideration of e.g. the characteristics of the individuals suitable for reintroduction back to nature, the genetic background, the preparation work required for the reintroduction, the selection of a suitable reintroduction area, adapting the animals to conditions in the wild, and the monitoring and procedures required after the reintroduction.

The offspring hopefully produced by the Ähtäri Zoo pandas will be returned to China at the age of two years. These individuals again are hoped to breed with suitable individuals, and the offspring will grow in special adaptation centres with natural conditions and minimized contact to humans in order to avoid the pandas getting accustomed to people. This will allow the possible offspring to adapt to conditions in the wild and ensure that they learn the skills needed to survive in the wild. If it seems that these pandas could survive in the wild and a suitable natural area can be found, the pandas will be reintroduced to one of pandas’ natural habitats.

Reintroduction to nature is a complicated and demanding process that also requires that we learn from previous experiences. If successful, it is an important way of increasing the genetic diversity of the natural populations and therefore strengthening the vitality of the population. In 2017, China had reintroduced a total of nine pandas back to nature at various phases of the project. Two of the pandas supposedly died soon after returning to nature, apparently of reasons not directly related to the reintroduction, but ones that threaten pandas born in the wild as well. It is inevitable that there will occasionally be deaths of pandas reintroduced to nature, and it is important not to cramp the reintroductions in fear of deaths if all prerequisites are in order. Some of the reintroduced pandas have been returned to human care due to e.g. health problems. There is a lot to learn in the project, and the work has only just begun, but especially the adaptation phase has been developed in recent years in order to better correspond to the pandas’ living conditions in the wild. This way, the animals can learn to survive in nature.

The reintroduction project is also important for gaining information on how keeping and breeding pandas in captivity has possibly affected their genome and survival possibilities in the wild. True success of course requires that the reintroduced individuals also breed successfully. One moment of success was experienced in 2017, when one of the females reintroduced to nature four years ago was discovered to be in good shape and to have changed its territory. This shows that the offspring of pandas grown in captivity are able to adapt to the conditions in the wild and to look for a suitable environment like a wild panda should.

What happens to the compensation paid to China for the pandas?

The pandas belong to China and are only on loan at the Ähtäri Zoo. The contract stipulates that the Ähtäri Zoo participate in panda conservation work by e.g. supporting conservation projects financially. Of these funds, 70% will go to the conservation efforts of pandas in the wild and their home forests, 10% to research, and 10% to management. Nowadays, the use of these funds is methodically planned in China and controlled by external auditors. Such support is important for the conservation efforts of the natural populations and their habitats.

The Ähtäri Zoo’s operations follow the strategy of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), according to which the survival of endangered species is safeguarded by supporting the conservation of the population in the wild (in situ conservation) by keeping individuals in captivity (ex situ conservation).

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