Just two days until the pandas land!

We caught up with head keeper Christian Toll

Soon, Germany will once again be home to giant pandas. Over the past weeks and months, panda fever has been steadily growing in Berlin and beyond. A great deal of information has been released about the new habitat and transportation logistics, as well as about the animals’ new head keeper Christian Toll. The experienced animal keeper has worked at Zoo Berlin since 1999. We will now introduce you to the “Panda Papa” – as he has been affectionately christened by the press – and ask him a few questions.


Mr Toll, with all this fuss over two animals, we have to return to a basic question. What is so special about giant pandas?
Pandas occupy an almost holy status in China and, more than any other animal, have become an international symbol of species conservation. There are very strict and exacting standards for keeping giant pandas. The slightest temperature change or difference in diet can have an impact on the health and wellbeing of these animals. Looking after pandas is definitely one of the most challenging tasks for a keeper. It is therefore a special honour for any zoo to become home to these sensitive and rare animals.
Just how rare are these bears?
Giant pandas were once found right up in the north-eastern part of China, all the way down into Myanmar and Vietnam. Today, the territory of the bamboo-eating bears has shrunk to the sparse coniferous and deciduous woods in the mountain ranges around China’s Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. The latest panda count carried out by China’s State Forestry Administration in 2014 recorded at least 1,864 of these bears living in their natural habitat – 17 percent more than in 2004. But despite successful conservation efforts, the survival of giant pandas in the wild is not guaranteed. That is why pandas are classified as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
You have been reading a lot in preparation for your new job, but you have also done quite a bit of travelling. Where has the job taken you so far?
I was in France for a few days in April at the zoo in Beauval, which has been home to giant pandas for several years. I was able to talk at length with the responsible keepers there and accompany them as they carried out their daily tasks and tended to the animals. This allowed me to learn a lot more about these special bears and benefit from the experience of my French colleagues.
And you have just got back from the airport again, correct?
Yes. Over the past few weeks I have been at the Chengdu Panda Base in China, meeting our two pandas Meng Meng and Jiao Qing for the first time. I also learned a great deal about breeding and looking after pandas from the Chinese keepers.
This new job involves a lot of responsibility. Aren't you nervous at all?
Oh, there is absolutely a great deal of responsibility involved. Only a few zoos in the world keep giant pandas, as the Chinese government will only send these threatened animals to selected facilities. The standards that need to be met are extremely high, and we will conduct regular checks to make sure all specifications continue to be met. What’s more, the history of pandas at Zoo Berlin is not a solid success story – no young have ever been produced. So that also adds a bit of pressure.

But I’m not nervous, otherwise I wouldn’t be the right person for the job. I am, however, approaching the role with the respect it requires. It will certainly be a change for me, as I have been working with ungulates for many years.
Will you miss your former animals – which include, of course, the popular zebras?
Of course, it's always a little sad when you have worked for years in one area and then you leave it. You grow very accustomed to the individual animals. But I am not actually leaving the zoo and can always visit my former stomping ground now and again when I’m feeling “homesick”. Plus, I know the animals are in the best of hands with my colleagues. Excitement about my new role outweighs any feeling of sadness. Giant pandas are a real rarity in zoos and a huge hit with the public thanks to their global fame.
Thank you for your time, Mr Toll, and best of luck in your new role as Zoo Berlin’s “Panda Papa”!

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