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

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Negotiating these loans is a complex process that can sometimes take years, said Javier Alvarez, a wildlife ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Pandas are listed as endangered under both the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and under provisions of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international treaty that regulates international trade in wildlife. As a result, pandas can't be imported into the U.S. for primarily commercial purposes.

Before an institution can import a panda, it must obtain a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Before issuing a permit, the agency must determine that transfer of animals will not harm the survival of the species in the wild, that the institution ultimately receiving the animals is suitably equipped to take care of them, and that importing the animals will benefit the species.

Still, issuing a permit can be controversial.

"Not everybody thinks pandas should be kept by an institution" and when the Fish and Wildlife Service issues or denies a permit, such a decision could be challenged in the courts by parties who disagree with the decision, said Alvarez. Non-governmental organizations can oppose the granting of an import permit "based on conservation issues; animal rights groups can argue that wild animals should never be held in a zoo," he said.

In addition to reviewing an application for compliance with the requirements outlined in CITES and the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service requires an extremely detailed outline of the research that will be conducted at each institution.

Panda Research

Research on captive animals can improve conditions for the captive population and also often provides knowledge that helps conserve the wild population.

"A better understanding of nutritional requirements will help in maintaining current reserves and establishing new ones," said Rebecca Snyder, a panda expert at Zoo Atlanta, Georgia. "The information can be used to help determine how much space containing certain species of bamboo is required to support each animal in the wild."

Zoo programs also enable scientists to develop new techniques for studying the animals thanks to laboratory facilities and expertise not available in the wild. U.S.-based researchers recently developed a new technique to extract DNA from panda feces.

"Pandas are very elusive; you can't go out and dart these animals, like you can with some other species, to get DNA samples, and there's only so much that can be learned from hair samples," said Lindburg. "Now you can go out in the wild, collect fecal material and use the information to help conservation efforts.

DNA analysis could alert scientists whether an isolated population in the wild is in danger of becoming too inbred, for example, signaling a need to introduce individuals from another reserve into the population.

"There's a tremendous educational value in having pandas in American zoos," said Lindberg. "I've seen so much change since 1996 when the pandas first came to us. Interest in and concern for pandas has just been flowering within the Chinese government. They've established and expanded reserves, worked to convert marginal agricultural land back to forest, and are doing a wonderful job educating people."

Additional Resources

News Features:
Pandas' Natural Habitat Must Expand, Experts Warn
A new study calls for the swift expansion of some of China's great panda reserves. Chinese and American scientists say that the protected habitat in some areas is so fragmented by development and agriculture that the animals find it near impossible to travel to new areas, and remain at high risk of extinction. Go>>

In China, Panda Mating Season Breeds Hope
Researchers in China are watching Da Shuang—a young female panda—for signs she is ready to mate. Correspondent Patty Kim takes us behind the scenes at Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding to show us how tough it is to breed, and hand raise, giant pandas. This story aired on our U.S. cable television program National Geographic Today. Go>>

At Memphis Zoo, Scientists Ponder Panda Chow
Memphis Zoo visitors this week are hoping to grab a peek at the multi-million-dollar panda pair that are the zoo's newest residents. Behind the public clamor, researchers from five universities seek to learn more about the species' nutritional ecology and foraging strategy. Go>>

Air Panda: Flying Cargo-Class With a Very Special Delivery
National Geographic Today correspondent Patty Kim recalls her 16-hour flight from Beijing to Tennessee with the Memphis Zoo's newest stars: two giant pandas named Ya Ya and Le Le. This story aired on our U.S. cable television program National Geographic Today. Go>>

National Geographic Explorer Magazine article and photo gallery: Can Washington, D.C.'s National Zoo's Pandas Help Their Endangered Chinese Cousins to Survive? Go>>

Creature Feature: Pandas (Fun Facts, Video, Audio, Map, Postcards): Go>>

Panda Chow (Online Game): Go>>

NG Book: The Little Panda (Windows on Literacy): Go>>

Animals & Nature Guide: Go>>

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