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Apr 15, 2019 12:16 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Wildlife Conservation In China: Following The Way Of The Panda

Because their main food, bamboo, is very low in nutrients, giant pandas spend a lot of time eating and lounging. MIKE BOTTINI
Apr 15, 2019 12:37 PM

China has received a lot of criticism with regards to its environmental track record, so I was heartened to meet a large group of dedicated and energetic young Chinese wildlife biologists at the 14th International Otter Congress in Tangjiahe National Nature Reserve, China.The five-day event was attended by 140 biologists working on one or more of the 13 species of otters found in the world. Researchers from all six continents where otters are found—they do not inhabit Antarctica—were represented.

Three otter species exist in China. They were widely distributed among China’s extensive freshwater systems but experienced a dramatic decline due to hunting and trapping, and extensive damage to wetland habitats, in the late 20th century. The decline continued even with the creation of large national wildlife preserves to protect them in the late 1900s, as a result of poaching. With recent strict enforcement of anti-poaching regulations, China’s otter population is showing signs of recovering.

China has had a very successful conservation campaign linked to the world’s rarest member of the bear family, the giant panda, and there was much discussion of building on that success and applying some of those tools to another endearing and charismatic creature, the otter.

I was intrigued with the panda conservation story and decided to spend some time at one of several panda breeding centers to learn more about it.

As was the case with so many wildlife species, including the otter, the causes of the panda’s precipitous decline were hunting, poaching even after hunting was banned, and loss of their bamboo and forested habitat through logging and clearing for farmland.

Unlike many other species, another factor that played a role in their decline was the captive breeding program.

While well-intentioned, this program started with capturing many wild pandas to create a wide genetic diversity of breeding stock. The early years of this ambitious program involved a steep learning curve, and many pandas, both breeding adults and newborns, died. After many of those problems were sorted out, the recovery team found that a large percentage of the pandas that were born in captivity did not survive when released into the wild.

The recovery team turned to an American biologist from New Hampshire, Bill Kilham. Bill worked with releasing orphaned black bear cubs back into the wild with an astonishing success rate, yet was largely shunned by the wildlife biologist community in the United States for not “following the rulebook” and for his unscientific and unorthodox methods.

The Chinese did not seem to care—they were more impressed with his results. It was not long before Bill figured out the glitch in their program, and, combined with protecting and restoring panda habitat, the restocking program proceeded with excellent results.

I was curious as to why their distinctive black-and-white, “anti-camouflage” color pattern evolved, but I have not heard any consensus on that. It certainly makes them look like a harmless creature despite their size and formidable claws. Even while observing the yearlings energetically wrestling, one can’t help but feel they are very gentle creatures. Yet I wouldn’t want to come face-to-face with one in a bamboo thicket, and from what I can gather here, few predators tangle with them.

Because of their fondness for bamboo, a very low-energy and low-nutrient food, protecting the 200- to 275-pound pandas requires protecting huge areas of bamboo habitat. These creatures spend 12 hours a day feeding, and most of the other 12 hours flat on their backs or up in a tree resting.

Today, 60 percent of the giant panda’s habitat is protected. The focus now is on meeting the 80 percent protection goal and protecting wildlife corridors that link all the protected panda areas.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese visit the panda breeding centers each year and get educated and excited about wildlife conservation. There was agreement among the otter biologists that aspects of China’s panda conservation and education model could be applied to protect not only China’s otters but also the country’s critically important riparian habitats.

The charismatic and playful otter could also entice more of the general public to get involved and support wildlife conservation efforts, and entice more young people to pursue careers as wildlife biologists.

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