The Giant Panda – an ambassador for species conservation
Giant pandas Meng Meng and Jiao Qing have been living at Zoo Berlin since June 2017. The two bears have settled in well and seem to be enjoying the Berlin atmosphere and all the perks that Europe’s most modern panda habitat has to offer.
A black-and-white symbol of wildlife protection
But these bamboo-munching bears are not just the prototypes for cuddly toys; pandas have also become a symbol for threatened species across the globe. They are the famous logo of WWF, for example – one of the world’s leading wildlife conservation organisations. The future of the wild relatives of our beloved Meng Meng and Jiao Qing is not yet secure, with extinction in their native Chinese habitat still a real and existing threat.
Giant pandas remain vulnerable in their natural habitat
Worryingly, there are only an estimated 1,860 giant pandas currently living in the wild – almost 70 percent of them in national nature reserves. China’s 67 nature reserves are in place to protect the pandas’ natural habitat. Together, they cover an area of roughly 14,000 km2 – that’s about 15 times the size of Berlin.
Chengdu Research Base – an important partner in panda conversation
Science and research play an important role in identifying suitable conservation areas and securing the giant panda’s survival. Without in-depth knowledge of how pandas live, it would be impossible to implement the appropriate protective measures. One of the most important breeding and research stations for giant pandas is the Chengdu Research Base in China’s Sichuan province. The base supports numerous experts who are working in schools and communities to raise awareness about the species. To date, more than 200 panda cubs have been born at Chengdu – including Zoo Berlin’s Meng Meng and Jiao Qing. The long-term goal at the base is to release the bears into the country’s protected reserves.
International cooperation to save the panda
The lending fee that Zoo Berlin is paying for its two pandas helps finance the work carried out by scientists in China. The cost of keeping Berlin’s two new bears is covered entirely by Zoo Berlin through its ticket sales, donations and sponsorships – no public money is used. The entirety of the six-digit lending fee goes towards the important work being carried out by Chinese experts in the breeding, protection and reintroduction of these beloved bears.
Standing up for species protection
Given that the giant panda is such an ambassador for species protection in general, Zoo Berlin hopes that its new residents will also draw visitors’ attention to the role humans play in the extinction of species all over the globe. Many species living at Zoo Berlin are vulnerable or critically endangered in their natural habitat. Zoo Berlin supports many other species protection programmes alongside that for the giant panda. Each year, it invests a seven-digit sum in a variety of species conservation projects – both in Berlin and in habitats around the world.
Destruction of habitats
Many animals, including the giant panda, end up on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species because of destruction of their natural habitat caused by humans. The animals that suffer most acutely from even small changes to their environment are those that have developed very habitat-specific characteristics, like polar bears and pandas. Without zoos, the continued existence of giant pandas would be virtually impossible. With their very particular nutritional needs and extremely short mating season, giant pandas are particularly impacted by the loss of their habitat. Finding food and a mate is increasingly difficult for the pandas living in China’s very fragmented nature reserves. The fact that giant pandas occupy an almost holy status in China is a major advantage, as without locally driven conservation efforts the species would probably have died out long ago.
There is still hope
Zoo Berlin hopes that Meng Meng and Jiao Qing will help make visitors more aware of the importance of zoological facilities for the protection of pandas and other threatened animal species. The steadily increasing number of giant pandas, the success of breeding programmes in China, and the international cooperation of zoos that house pandas are all positive indicators that these amazing black-and-white bears will still exist on our planet in 100 years – but we have a long way to go yet.
When the population of a threatened species becomes so small that its continuation rests on just a few individuals, it becomes very difficult to ensure genetic diversity. This is where scientific breeding programmes step in. Berlin’s two pandas are themselves part of an international breeding programme coordinated by experts in China. Every panda in the programme has its family tree recorded: Meng Meng’s mother, for example, is Eryatou, her father is Yong Yong, and she has siblings; Jiao Qing’s mother is Jiao Zi, his father is Kebi, and he too has siblings. The two animals were selected as a promising breeding pair by a team of international experts, due to their low inbreeding coefficients and the fact that their young would possess a valuable genetic makeup.
It is not only the giant panda that would cease to exist without zoological organisations; some animal species that were once extinct in the wild can now be found back in their natural habitats thanks solely to the work of zoos. The Przewalski’s horse, the Arabian oryx and the bearded vultures of the Alps are just three examples of threatened species that have successfully been re-established in the wild thanks to endangered species programmes that used genetic reservoirs from zoos. Together with Tierpark Berlin and the Zoo Stiftung Berlin foundation, Zoo Berlin plays an active role in species conservation – financing and supporting numerous wildlife and species protection organisations of all sizes the world over. These projects include Save the Rhino International in Kenya, Bonobo Alive in DR Congo, and the Frankfurt Zoological Society’s work to protect the orangutans of Bukit Tigapuluh National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia.