How Pandas Reach U.S. Zoos, Why They're Needed

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
May 2, 2003

View a photo gallery of pandas at U.S zoos. Go >>

View a photo gallery of two pandas' journey from China to the Memphis Zoo. Go >>

The arrival of Le Le and Ya Ya at the Memphis Zoo this week brings the number of giant pandas in the United States to nine, spread across four zoos. It's not easy getting them here.

Because pandas are highly endangered, international treaties forbid their trade for commercial purposes. In order to bring a pair of pandas into the United States, each zoo has to acquire a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and develop a highly detailed research plan.

More than 80 separate studies are being conducted by the four U.S. zoos, according to a recent survey by the American Zoological and Aquarium Association (AZA). Each zoo has a particular research focus.

"San Diego's emphasis is on the communication system of giant pandas, Zoo Atlanta focuses primarily on behavioral research, including studies of giant panda maternal, developmental, and reproductive behavior, the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. is doing technology transfer, workshops, and training, and all are doing overlapping work in captive breeding and management," said Donald Lindburg, head of the office of giant panda conservation at the San Diego Zoo in California.

At Tennessee's Memphis Zoo the primary research focus will be on the nutritional aspects of different species of bamboo.

"Pandas are notoriously difficult to study in the wild unless you can put collars on them to track them," said David M. Powell, a conservation biologist with the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo in Washington, D.C. "They live in steep, rugged mountains amongst thick patches of bamboo. They are shy and secretive, so it's rare that you would actually see one."

Science's understanding of the species, native to China, is very limited. As a result, captive panda studies are of tantamount importance. Most of what is known by Western scientists about pandas today came from studies of Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing at the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo. "We don't have a good grasp on individual variability in behavioral or physiological characteristics," said Powell.

Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing, the first two pandas in a U.S. zoo, were presented as a gift to the United States in 1972 by the Chinese government.

The nine pandas currently in the U.S. belong to the Chinese government, and are on loan to the zoos for 10 to 12 years. A baby panda born at the San Diego zoo three years ago also belongs to China and is due to be returned if and when the current SARS epidemic subsides there.

Negotiating a Permit

Continued on Next Page >>


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