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Climate Change Won’t Kill Pandas

Wed, 12/05/2012 - 8:29am
Chinese Academy of Sciences

Image: Chinese Academy of SciencesExperts have rejected a report that climate change threatens to drive giant pandas to extinction in the wild as rising temperatures wipe out bamboo stocks for the endangered species.

They say the animals are unlikely to suffer from hunger.

Bamboo, the panda's staple food, is growing well in major panda habitats, says Ouyang Zhiyun, chief of the State Key Laboratory of Urban and Regional Ecology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Zhang Hemin, chief of the administrative bureau of the Wolong National Nature Reserve, China's largest base for captive pandas, says the animals eat many varieties of bamboo, and will find enough food even if supplies of one variety fall.

"China has 37 bamboo species located at elevations from 400 to 3,500 meters. If certain species die within 100 years, other species might thrive to fill the gap," Zhang says.

Their remarks were in response to a report published by the Daily Telegraph in Britain based on research published by the journal Nature Climate Change.

The research focused on the Qinling Mountains in Shaanxi province, home to some 275 wild pandas or 17 percent of the wild panda population.

Ouyang says that rising temperatures are likely to cause bamboo to grow at higher altitudes in the Qinling Mountains, but supplies were unlikely to drop.

Qinling is home to at least three major types of bamboo — arrow, wooden and dragon-head, covering a total of 250,000 hectares and growing at 800 meters above sea level.

More than two decades of panda conservation efforts have seen the population of captive pandas rise to 341 worldwide from fewer than 100 in 1990.

China has set up 64 giant panda nature reserves in Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, covering 60 percent of panda habitats and more than 70 percent of the wild panda population. About 1,600 pandas are living in the wild.

Wild survival

The experts says the deaths of individual pandas selected to be returned to the wild cannot be ruled out.

On Oct 11, 2-year-old male panda Tao Tao, raised by his mother in a semi-wild area to allow for better preparation for survival in the wild, was released into the Liziping Nature Reserve in Sichuan province almost six years after a similar project ended with the death of male panda Xiang Xiang, who was more than 5 years old, in early 2007.

Britain's Daily Mail newspaper reported that Tao Tao is likely to meet the same fate as Xiang Xiang, the first captive-bred panda released into the wild. Xiang Xiang was found dead 10 months after being released, apparently chased to his death by wild pandas.

Sarah Bexell, director of conservation education at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, says, "Animal conservation personnel consider it normal for individuals to die after being released into the wild. Reintroduction of wildlife is extremely risky and should be undertaken and understood with great caution. Many individuals, of any reintroduced species, perish in the process because they have lost much of their natural behavior after years in captive environments."

She adds, "Each giant panda released into the wild is known by the public and therefore will be followed with great attention. The general public is not aware that the deaths of some individual giant pandas released into the wild are inevitable. Chinese experts are still researching the unique obstacles they face in learning how to preserve remaining habitat and to safely release giant pandas."

In the wild, a mother panda will drive away her cub when it is about one and a half years old. "Tao Tao was with his mother throughout the normal duration of time cubs spend with their mothers," Bexell says.

Workers in Tao Tao's reserve captured his mother, Cao Cao, now 15, from the wild when she was young.

The fact Cao Cao was raised by her mother in the wild meant she could teach Tao Tao how to climb trees when other animals approached and to find food under a blanket of snow, critical survival skills.

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