Interview with Zoo Director Dr Andreas Knieriem: one “giant” year of pandas in Berlin

One year ago today, the Panda Garden was ceremoniously opened by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping. On the occasion of this important anniversary, we chatted with the director of Zoo Berlin, Dr Andreas Knieriem, and asked him about everything that has happened during the pandas’ first year in Berlin.


Dr Knieriem, how have the two giant pandas settled in? Do they like their Berlin life?

Meng Meng and Jiao Qing have settled in extremely well here in Berlin. They are making full use of their outdoor areas and have even developed something of a daily routine. For example, Jiao Qing loves to breakfast outside in the early morning sunshine, and when the weather is warm he takes his meals in the pool. The two bears doze quite peacefully in various spots in their habitats, sometimes even right up next to the pane of glass that separates them from the visitors. Meng Meng often sleeps on her “bunkbed” high up in her indoor area – barely two metres away from onlookers. This regular rhythm of eating and sleeping lets us know that the bears feel safe and secure. If they were unhappy about anything, we would be able to tell from changes in these behavioural patterns.

Pandas come from the misty forests of the Chinese mountains and are used to a cooler, damper climate. How are our two bears coping with the hot summer in Berlin this year?

Their interior areas are air-conditioned so that they never get any warmer than 24°C, even on the hottest days. The bears feel most comfortable in temperatures around 20°C – which is why their outdoor areas have a stream and pool so they can cool down any time they like. The mist that is regularly sprayed in the panda habitats doesn’t just look nice for visitors, it also keeps the air cool and damp for the pandas. Jiao Qing in particular spends a lot of time on the shady, moist rocks by his pool on warmer days.

Are you still in close contact with the project partners in China?

We talk regularly with our partners in China, who have a great deal of experience in keeping, caring for, and breeding these rare bears. We give the team in Chengdu and the China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA) frequent updates on the bears’ health, how they are eating, and what behavioural enrichment options we are offering them. We also provide regular information about their behaviour in general. This might include which part of the habitat the bears prefer to spend their time, how much they are sleeping and where, and whether they are using the climbing apparatus, caves and pool. Next year, we will work with our Chinese partners to decide how and whether the two bears should meet up. This year, we agreed that Meng Meng was still too young to have a baby – in the spring of 2018 the panda pair hadn’t even been with us for a full year.

How do the bears like to spend their days?

Giant pandas have a reputation for doing very little other than sleeping and eating, and we can confirm that this is absolutely true! It is normal behaviour for the herbivorous bears. The bamboo they eat is so low in calories that they have to consume large quantities of it, and they are accustomed to using as little energy as possible. Despite that, when the weather is cooler Meng Meng can often be found practising some rather spectacular stunts on her climbing apparatus. She is certainly the more active of the two bears, which might well be down to her young age. When it comes to the medical training with the keepers, however, both bears are highly motivated.

How much bamboo do the pandas get each day?

Pandas eat around 30 kilos of bamboo per day. We give them around 50 to 60 kilos because they don’t necessarily like all of it, and will only eat parts of certain stems. Our bamboo supply from the Netherlands is working well, as we are always able to order from a large selection of bamboo varieties. The Dutch bamboo nursery also delivers to other zoos in Europe, and the professionals there know how the tastes of these finicky bears can change quite suddenly. We now also have an agreement with Berlin’s Botanical Garden that allows us to fall back on its supplies of bamboo in case we experience a shortage.

Have the keepers noticed any differences in personality between the two pandas?

I’d say it’s almost easier to distinguish them by their personalities than by their appearance. While Jiao Qing is rather sedate, undemanding and easy-going, younger Meng Meng is much more active, exacting and headstrong. She began exploring her climbing apparatus very early on and can now regularly be seen performing somewhat nerve-racking stunts, while Jiao Qing is only ever to be found dozing or snacking on the lower levels of his own climbing apparatus. Meng Meng is also more curious. When the keepers make her a new toy, she instantly wants to try out everything she can do with it. She is also more enthusiastic about the medical training and has a closer relationship to her human keepers than the more nonchalant Jiao Qing. But despite her tender age, Meng Meng is also quite the diva: she knows what she wants and has very clear ideas about what the keepers should do so that she can get it. In that regard, her behaviour is reminiscent of a human teenager.

How about Meng Meng’s unique quirks? Has anything changed?

Meng Meng still has the charming habit of “helping” the gardeners by regularly pruning the bamboo plants in the front part of her habitat. Thankfully, the bamboo grows back quickly enough. Over the past few months we have been testing a few things out in order to learn more about her tendency to walk backwards – looking at the situations in which she exhibits the behaviour and what the triggers might be. We seem to have made good progress so far. The medical training, which she very much enjoys, now mainly takes place outdoors, which has shifted her focus away from the indoor area. She often used to walk backwards in front of the closed entrance to the indoor area when she was waiting impatiently for the training to begin and wanted to encourage the keeper to open the door. We have made her everyday life more varied so that she isn’t always waiting for specific things to happen – such as food deliveries or training sessions – and expressing her impatience by walking backwards.

Has much changed in the running of the Panda Garden over the past year?

In April 2018, we introduced fundamental structural changes to the staffing of the zoology department at Zoo Berlin. We based the new structure on the one in place at the Tierpark, which has been working very well for more than two years now. The many small sub-divisions have been merged into larger, overarching divisions, each with its own head. That person serves as a liaison officer between the scientifically-oriented curators and the practice-oriented keepers. Previously, for example, Christian Toll was in charge of bears, while Norbert Zahmel was in charge of seals. Creating larger, merged divisions with a single head should help make communication run more smoothly and efficiently between the curators and their many subdivisions. The new structure means that Norbert is now responsible for the Panda Garden alongside existing bear keepers Christian Toll and Markus Röbke. He continues to be responsible for the seals, but also for bears and big cats. He has many years’ experience with predators and enjoyed a close relationship with our late panda Bao Bao. When Meng Meng and Jiao Qing were getting acclimatised to their new home in Berlin, he was able to offer valuable support and advice. In his new role, Norbert will now be able to lend his expertise more often.

Are the pandas still a major attraction at the Zoo?

The pandas remain one of the biggest highlights at the Zoo. Thankfully, we no longer have the huge queues outside the Panda Garden that we witnessed in the first days and weeks after it opened. This is partly due to the fact the bears now spend much more time in their outdoor areas and can therefore be seen from lots of different vantage points around their habitats. But the Panda Plaza can still get very full during school holidays and at weekends. As Zoo Berlin is the only place in Germany where people can see giant pandas, visitor interest is unlikely to diminish any time soon. Of course, other animals such as our elephants, giraffes and sea lions are still extremely popular, too.

The loan fee for the two pandas is one million US dollars a year. Are the pandas worth it?

First I have to say that we should never consider zoos as a purely commercial enterprise. If we were to do that, the majority of zoos that are doing such excellent work in conservation, education and research wouldn’t even exist. Our Chinese partners stipulate that any zoo wishing to keep these rare animals should also do its bit to protect the species in its natural habitat – which is absolutely right and proper. As a zoological institution, we feel a sense of obligation towards the pandas and many other threatened species. So we regard that fee of a million dollars primarily as an investment in species conservation – protecting the natural habitat of wild pandas.
That said, we have been delighted to note that the two new arrivals have made Zoo Berlin even more attractive to visitors than it was before. Especially given the ongoing construction of our Predator House and the upcoming renovation of the Rhinoceros House, we are glad to be able to offer visitors an exciting new attraction. Our visitor survey last year found that the pandas were one of the many reasons why respondents came to Zoo Berlin, proving that the pandas are clearly a visitor highlight. The increased interest isn’t accurately reflected in the statistics, however, as last year’s summer was extraordinarily rainy and caused a reduction in visitor numbers at many attractions. But thanks to the pandas, our visitor numbers increased despite the bad weather. Of course, there is no way of knowing exactly how many visitors came to the Zoo solely because of the pandas and how many were planning a visit anyway. So it wouldn’t be right to attribute the difference in visitor numbers from 2016 to 2017 purely to the new arrivals. However, based on the large crowds that have accumulated around the Panda Garden, we can assume that the presence of the pandas is at least partially responsible for the increase.

What were the other panda highlights of the past year?

The ceremonial opening of the Panda Garden was, of course, an historic event for Zoo Berlin that is unlikely to be surpassed for years to come. But we also had other high-profile guests who came to see our pandas – including Hollywood actor Gerard Butler (link to YouTube video). Another major happening was the Global Panda Awards ceremony, which attracted a great deal of attention from the global community of panda fans. Zoo Berlin was nominated in five of the twelve categories and won an award in three of those. So we were very pleased with that result.

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