Biology, Politics Pose Huge Barriers to Saving Pandas : Wildlife: Focus is on San Diego Zoo. The species’ mating habits and officials’ suspicion stymie captive breeding plan.


On one thing all sides agree: The giant panda, that childlike, overstuffed animal with the haunting black circles around its eyes, must be rescued from the ravages of modernity in its native China.

After that, agreement tends to break down.

As a result, the most popular animal ever brought to American zoos has all but disappeared from public view. Only one panda remains in an American zoo, Hsing-Hsing in the National Zoo in Washington, and it is unclear whether the federal government will again allow zoos to borrow pandas from the Chinese.

The reasons lie in a complicated struggle to save the panda that is equal parts science and politics, international cooperation and geopolitical suspicion.


At the center of the dispute is the renowned San Diego Zoo, whose thwarted bid to borrow two pandas from the Chinese for exhibition and breeding purposes has heightened the international debate about how, or even whether, the panda can be salvaged as a species.

Scientists in China and the United States have found it difficult to compensate for the panda’s hit-or-miss approach to procreation, in which the male and female live apart all year long and the female is in heat only one day annually.

But the political hurdles in saving the panda are even more daunting.

Two Chinese bureaucracies with responsibility for the panda have been at odds. American zoos have clamored for the black-and-white, bear-like animals, but the U.S. government in recent years has given mixed messages, first encouraging their importation, then putting up roadblocks and, finally, halting importation altogether last December.

The Geneva-based World Wildlife Fund, a leader in the save-the-panda movement for 25 years, has urged even tighter restrictions on imports than those in the endangered species law.

The world’s leading authority on panda preservation has written a blistering book suggesting that preservation efforts in China are doomed because of ineptitude and greed and that American zoos, including San Diego, are mainly interested in exploiting the panda to boost attendance.

Indeed, the monetary stakes for American zoos in the panda debate are enormous.

In an increasingly competitive market for the consumer entertainment dollar, pandas mean big bucks. A dozen American zoos, from Seattle to Atlanta, as well as the Busch Gardens theme park in Tampa, Fla., are interested in borrowing pandas and are willing to pay millions of dollars to the Chinese to get them.

Meanwhile the number of pandas in the wild has dwindled to fewer than 1,000.

For 3 million years, untold numbers of pandas roamed freely in the mountains of Central China. But in the past half-century pandas have been pushed to the brink of extinction by China’s burgeoning population and economic development.

Much of the forest that is the panda’s natural habitat has been cleared for timber and farming. The bamboo that is the panda’s main source of nutrition suffered a natural but catastrophic die-off in the mid-1980s.

As if economic and natural forces were not bad enough, poachers have killed pandas for their pelts, which can fetch $10,000 on the Asian black market. The Chinese reportedly have executed six poachers but the illegal traffic continues.

Amid all this depressing news about the panda’s chances for survival, scientists at the San Diego Zoo, acclaimed in the zoological world for their work in preserving other endangered species, thought last year that they had found a way to make a major contribution toward saving the pandas.

San Diego Zoo and Chinese officials, who have cooperated for two decades in saving several species, struck a deal for two young pandas to be sent to the zoo for three years. The zoo would give $3 million to the Chinese government to pay for the preservation of panda habitat. If the female gave birth, the ante would be upped by $600,000 per cub.

Scientists at the zoo’s Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species believe they have found a hormone test to predict the female’s one-day estrus, a hair test to determine virility and rutting ability among male pandas, and behavioral methods copied from cheetahs to get male and female pandas interested in mating.

If they are right, the results could be a major boon to the panda breeding centers run by the Chinese government, where the reproductive record has been spotty. Confident of approval by the U.S. government, the San Diego Zoo spent nearly $1 million for a special panda enclosure.

But in September the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish & Wildlife Service rejected the zoo’s application to import Shun-Shun and Shi-Shi, both of whom had been captured for medical reasons.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said sending pandas to San Diego could lead the Chinese to round up pandas as a kind of cash crop to peddle to other zoos.

The rejection signaled a shift of federal policy. During the Reagan and Bush administrations, several applications to import pandas were approved. When the Fish & Wildlife Service balked at approving a loan permit for the zoo in Columbus, Ohio, President Bush intervened on the zoo’s behalf.

Babbitt’s rejection was an unexpected and embarrassing turn of events for the San Diego Zoo: to be accused of doing something that could hasten the extinction of an animal species beloved by mankind.

“When we were turned down, I was flabbergasted,” said Douglas Myers, executive director of the San Diego Zoological Society. “Our whole reason for being is to help preserve species.”

The San Diego Zoo’s application had two powerful opponents: the World Wildlife Fund, whose president is Britain’s Prince Philip, and noted zoological writer George Schaller, author of the 1993 book “The Last Panda.”

Schaller, who conducted the first panda census for the World Wildlife Fund, refers acidly to Chinese collaboration with American zoos as “rent-a-panda” programs and concludes that panda preservation is a failure.

The fallout from the San Diego rejection and the Schaller book has been enormous. The zoo has resubmitted its application with added scientific evidence it hopes will allay Babbitt’s fears.

“I hope this time good science is recognized and politics are put aside,” said Myers.

Instead of the female Shun-Shun, the zoo is now asking for Bai Yung, a captive-born female from the preserve in Wolong. There had been controversy about the reasons behind Shun-Shun’s capture.

Also, the panda pot has been sweetened. Along with the $1 million a year for preservation of panda habitat, the zoo will also provide $200,000 a year in scientific assistance. The agreement could be in effect for up to 12 years.

Three months after rejecting the San Diego application, the Fish & Wildlife Service stopped reviewing new applications for the importation of pandas until a new panda policy is developed. Babbitt, citing the Schaller book, has taken a personal hand in shaping that policy, a process that is still under way.

Meanwhile, the American Assn. of Zoological Parks and Aquariums has formulated a Species Survival Plan. The trade association’s plan would have zoos acting in concert to import pandas for breeding purposes rather than having individual zoos cut separate deals.

Importing pandas strictly for exhibition would be ended. All imports would be part of a breeding program; only pandas born in captivity in China would be eligible to be loaned to American zoos.

By acting as a consortium, zoos could share information on the panda’s behavior in captivity and possibly solve the mystery of why many captive pandas seem to lose interest in copulation. Sperm from males with a proven record of potency could be collected for artificial insemination. For natural methods, finicky females might be provided a selection of mates.

The zoo association plan is dependent on the Chinese allowing for greater accountability of where zoo funds earmarked for habitat preservation, such as the millions promised by San Diego, are being spent. The Chinese say it will cost $50 million to buy enough forest land to ensure the species’ survival.

Schaller and the World Wildlife Fund have expressed concern that money already sent to China by U.S. zoos for habitat preservation has been squandered or spent on non-panda projects. Panda policy in China is handled by overlapping and sometimes warring ministries of forestry and construction.

Getting the Chinese to permit outside auditing is a touchy diplomatic matter. A high-level mission from the American Assn. of Zoological Parks and Aquariums left earlier this month for China.

When the group returns, it hopes to announce a breakthrough agreement for accountability. The goal is to influence Babbitt and the Fish & Wildlife Service to allow pandas to be brought to the United States for breeding.

Whether such an agreement can be reached, or whether it will placate the concerns of the World Wildlife Fund, is unclear. The organization funded the first census in the 1970s and has helped the Chinese manage some of their preservation centers.

“Some of the Chinese plans for timber extraction, panda preservation areas, and hotels near those preservation areas are scary,” said World Wildlife Fund official Ginette Himley.

By all accounts, pandas have been the most popular attraction ever brought to American zoos since the first visiting panda, Su-Lin, was brought to Chicago in 1937 amid hoopla fit for royalty.

When the San Diego Zoo brought Yuan-Yuan and Basi for 200 days in 1987 and 1988, attendance soared and the zoo made an estimated $4 million from tickets, souvenirs and concessions. A new word was coined to describe the sensation: pandamonium.

The zoos in Toledo and Columbus wanted pandas so badly in the 1980s that they fought in court to get them. The Columbus zoo risked censure by the zoo association.

For two decades the nation watched the reproductive drama of Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, given to the National Zoo after President Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972. The deaths of all five offspring and the demise of the female Ling-Ling were cause for national disappointment.

“In what other species are all captives known by name?” wrote Schaller. “What other species has its every birth, illness, reluctant romance and death announced by the news media?”

The public’s fascination with the panda has baffled scientists.

Some have suggested that the panda’s teddy-bear appearance triggers a hormonal response and latent maternal feelings. Others have theorized the attraction comes from the fact that adult pandas, which can grow to 300 pounds and five feet in length, retain the basic appearance of cubs.

“They’re both exotic and cuddly,” suggested the wildlife fund’s Himley, whose group uses the panda as its logo and sells panda trinkets.

Whatever the reason for the infatuation, the Chinese in the 1970s began to understand the political uses of the panda. Pandas were loaned to zoos in Japan, the United States, England, France, Spain, Mexico and North Korea. Pandas were loaned to the Los Angeles Zoo during the 1984 Olympics, but since the late 1980s the flow of pandas to America has slowed to a trickle because of misgivings by the Fish & Wildlife Service.

The pent-up demand for pandas is enormous. Oliver Ryder, geneticist at the San Diego Zoo, calls this the “charismatic mega-vertebrate” phenomenon and thinks it can be harnessed to rally public support to save other species.

“People may not care about the spotted salamander, the El Segundo blue butterfly or the desert pupfish,” Ryder said. “But they care about the panda.”

Ryder did a study he hopes refutes the idea that granting a panda permit would encourage the Chinese to begin capturing pandas for export. His figures indicate that even when China was exporting pandas freely, the number of captures was unaffected.

While the San Diego import application is being reviewed--no decision is expected this summer--other zoos are watching. “Everyone concerned with pandas is watching what happens to San Diego,” said Himley.

San Diego Zoo officials have suggested that Schaller’s pessimism may be based on old information, noting that his data was collected in the early 1980s and that cooperation has improved.

“China is a different country than when George was there,” said animal behavior expert Don Lindburg. “From the standpoint of captive breeding, if we’re ever going to do anything with the panda, now is the time.”

As it waits for the pandas that may never arrive, the San Diego Zoo has put a sign outside the empty enclosure asking for the public to remain patient. A toy panda bear sits as a forlorn presence in a tree.

In March, a zoo official got an unexpected opportunity to speak to President Clinton about pandas. While vacationing in Coronado, the President, his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and their daughter, Chelsea, went on a VIP tour of the zoo’s Wild Animal Park.

The president got a close-up view of a Somali wild ass, an endangered species that has been bred at the Wild Animal Park. He asked zoo official Jim Dolan about the zoo’s efforts with other rare animals.

One animal seemed foremost on the President’s mind.

“Do you have your pandas yet?” Clinton asked.

Dolan was more than willing to provide details.