Minerva Singh is a PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge and she is involved with the BES Conservation Ecology Special Interest Group. In this post Minerva looks at whether zoos can help in the conservation of charismatic megafauna.

For International Women’s Day, we asked Minerva about her career in science and the challenges and improvements she is seeing in STEM. You can read all of our posts for International Women’s Day here.

Until a Giant Panda skin made its way to Europe in the 19th century, the existence of this unique and charismatic species was thought to be the stuff of legends. However, the Giant Panda, a bear species unique to China exists and is one of the best known mammals in the world. From being a part of China’s “panda diplomacy” to adorning the icon of the conservation NGO, WWF it is both a national and international icon.

Giant Panda in Zoo Negara
Giant Panda in Zoo Negara, Malaysia.

However, the Giant Panda has been listed as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List. Only a few thousand individuals exist in the wild. While in the past Giant Pandas could be found across multiple territories – North Myanmar, North Vietnam and the whole of China, now they are restricted to a few sites in China. Three provinces in south-central China now host these once-widespread species: Gansu, Sichuan and Shaanxi. Giant Pandas are almost entirely dependent on bamboos for their diets. Hence factors like habitat loss, fragmentation and human encroachment are significant factors in driving down Giant Panda populations. China’s economic boom, especially rapidly developing infrastructure, roads and railways further threaten valuable habitat and can imperil the already imperilled species. In addition to being a charismatic species, they are important for seed dispersal which helps maintain healthy vegetation. They are also an “umbrella species” – conservation of these facilitates the conservation of many other species of birds, mammals which share their habitat. In spite of ongoing challenges, Giant Panda populations are on the rise.

Captive breeding programs have played an important role in increasing Giant Panda populations. Two Giant Panda breeding centres are located in China (Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding and Bifengxia Giant Panda Base). There are several Giant Panda research and breeding centres located in many different parts of the world, including Zoo Negara in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). Initially captive breeding programs were fraught with difficulties owing to limited reproductive capability of the species. Initially, captivity was a deterrent to reproductive success and until recently assisted reproduction techniques were employed to ensure breeding. Recently in 2015, two Giant Pandas that had been loaned to Zoo Negara (Malaysia) reproduced naturally (see below):

Giant Panda Cub
Four-month-old Giant Panda Cub, Zoo Negara.

While the Giant Pandas and their progeny are a popular attraction at Zoo Negara, it would be wrong to dismiss zoos as places of crass display of exotic species. Indeed display of the exotic and unusual was the motivation that underpinned the formation of modern zoos in the 19th century. However, zoos have evolved considerably beyond that point. For instance a previous cub borne by the Giant Panda pair has now been returned to China. The existing cub is housed in a special facility within the Giant Panda Conservation Centre of Zoo Negara where its health and well-being are rigorously monitored. Visitors are only allowed to view the cub for 60 seconds. The maintenance of conservation-dependent but charismatic species is supported to a certain extent by zoos. In 2014, Inuka, a polar bear born in Singapore Zoo celebrated its 25th birthday.

Polar Bear
Polar Bear in Singapore Zoo.

The maintenance of polar bears in Singapore Zoo is a testament of the zoo’s extensive breeding program and massive investment in infrastructure. However concerns were raised regarding the quality of habitat provided to them and the possibility of animals suffering from stress/psychosis. The possibility of animals suffering from psychological issues is a real concern and that is one of the reasons zoos strive to provide suitable, “natural” enclosures:

Giant Panda Enclosure
Giant Panda Enclosure, Zoo Negara.

However provision of natural enclosures is no substitute for natural habitats. WWF is supportive of captive breeding programs, but suggests that these be used as a last resort and with the ultimate aim of reintroduction. Zoos and breeding centres are integral components of ex-situ conservation and can potentially help bring back species from the brink. Zoos are also important for raising awareness about conservation-related issues and conservation education. However, these alone cannot contribute to the goal of species preservation. Sufficient investment is needed to restore and protect the habitat of species to ensure they can also survive outside of zoos.

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