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There's plenty of bureaucracy involved. Funds for projects in nature reserves in Sichuan Province typically pass from the contributing zoo to the China Wildlife Conservation Association, to the central government's State Forestry Administration, to the Wildlife Division of the Sichuan Provincial Forestry Department, to the district government where the reserve is located, and only then to the reserve itself. But the support for fieldwork is crucial, says Peking University researcher Wang Dajun. "Captive numbers are up, but pandas in the wild still face very serious problems," especially the loss of habitat.

"Getting as much information as we'd like to have on how the money is being spent has been challenging," David Wildt says. Zoos must account to the Fish and Wildlife Service for the impact of their funds, but China is a sovereign nation, and no donor organization is likely to have much luck ordering the Chinese to open their books to public scrutiny. The large sums of money zoos spend on their panda loan agreements "create some tension," Ken Stansell acknowledges. "But China's spending a lot of its own money too, and investing twice as much in conservation in the wild as it was a decade ago."

Loan agreements also provide that a surviving cub can ring up an additional $600,000 obligation for the breeding zoo. All in all, the financial burden is tremendous, Stansell says, leaving him still puzzled about "why a zoo would want to get into the panda business."

Don Lindburg, head of the San Diego Zoo's giant panda program, has an answer. Hosting pandas isn't about boosting revenues, or institutional prestige, or visitor numbers, he says. "Our pandas are valuable because they create a reason for a relationship with China. They open doors and give us access to what's happening with pandas in the field."

Lindburg's mightiest ambassador has probably been Hua Mei, oldest daughter of San Diego panda matriarch, Bai Yun. Born in 1999, Hua Mei was the first surviving panda cub bred in the U.S. In 2004 she was recalled by China to her mother's birthplace—the giant panda research center in Sichuan Province's Wolong Nature Reserve—where she promptly got pregnant and delivered twins. Hua Mei produced a second pair of baby pandas in 2005. And she wasn't alone.

Last summer Wolong was at the center of an unprecedented captive-panda population explosion: 11 females there (including Hua Mei) gave birth to 16 cubs. More stunning than the number of births was the survival rate, even of the twins: 100 percent.

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