Kung fu panda: The fight to save China's favourite bear

This year, China began its most important population survey: counting the giant pandas living in the wild. Clifford Coonan joins the search for a reclusive national symbol

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The Independent Online

A shout echoes through the Niba Shan forest, and we crash through the thicket on the steep side of a Sichuan mountain, eager for our first sighting of the famously private, rare black and white marvel known as the giant panda.

"Here! Quick, a bit faster, come on," shouts our guide. But there's no need to hurry, as what we find isn't going anywhere. We come across not a real-life Kung Fu Panda but instead a neat arrangement of four pieces of dung in the grass. The research team congratulate each other on their luck, quickly gathering up the droppings and placing them in plastic sample bags. Every piece is carefully catalogued.

"This is great. We can tell an awful lot from these droppings," says Gu Xiaodong, deputy head of the Fourth Panda Research Group, one of the groups taking part in a once-in-a-decade census of the panda population in China, the only country in the world where giant pandas live in the wild.

"It looks like a young panda's dung, because there are only a few bits of bamboo shoot in the droppings, and young pandas like to eat the leaves," says Gu, one of the team leaders. One thing that unites all the members of this research group is their belief that the giant panda is special and worth protecting. They are trying to build up a broader picture of how many pandas live in this section of Yunjing county in Sichuan province.

A national emblem that supposedly brings good luck, the panda is a potent symbol in China, where they are called da xiong mao (which translates as 'big bear cat' – although there is actually some debate about whether the panda is a bear, a raccoon or a sub-species all its own). But pandas are a perilously endangered species, and finding out how many there are is critical if numbers are to be increased.

There are 328 pandas living in zoos and research centres in China, and their chances of survival in captivity have improved in the past few years because of the increasing success of breeding programmes – but their continued existence in the wild is essential if the species is to prevail. The previous census, conducted between 1999 and 2003, found that China had 1,596 wild giant pandas – 1,206 in Sichuan, 273 in Shaanxi and 117 in Gansu.

Back to the forest, and we are in Survey Zone XYJ419, a two-square-kilometre patch of mountainside. Getting here has involved a five-hour drive from the Sichuan provincial capital Chengdu along mountain roads made treacherous by landslides. As we work our way over the difficult terrain, law graduate-turned-panda surveyor Huang Jian checks his GPS machine and writes notes. We are at 2,300m and climbing.

"The panda survey was looking for staff when I graduated so I applied," says Huang. "Pandas are a treasure, and the whole world loves pandas, so it's a big responsibility."

An intense figure, who disappears at regular intervals during our hike to try to follow precarious routes that he says are more likely to be the kind of tracks that pandas will favour, Huang has been involved in panda conservation for three years. Despite that, he has only spotted one bear in the wild.

"It's very unusual to see a panda; they are private creatures. Even finding panda droppings was unusual," admits Huang.

As well as droppings, the researchers are looking for footprints, for bite marks; any evidence that pandas are living in the area. There are limitations to the survey, as there is only so much of this mountainous area that one can cover by walking, no matter how sure-footed your guide. Pandas are resourceful when it comes to dodging would-be spotters.

Attempts to reintroduce pandas raised in captivity into the wild have not succeeded so far, so the Beijing government is keen to ensure the survival of the giant panda in its natural home. This is China's national symbol, after all, and the survey will show what kind of future lies in store for it.

The meteoric growth of China's economy hasn't helped. Beijing may have reined in the destruction of the forests that provides them with the bamboo shoots that are the panda's staple food, but motorway construction and other forms of development have caused major disruption to the animal's natural habitat.

The area we are exploring has seen a revival in the local fauna: golden monkeys, black bears, hawks and red pandas – the less cute cousins of the giant panda and the inspiration behind Shifu in Kung Fu Panda. Although it attracts less attention than its giant cousin, the red panda is also under threat.

Team leader Gu is optimistic about the future, pointing to the dense foliage as evidence that things are turning around – deforestation was stopped in this area in 1998. "Based on our experience in the past decade, we think there will be more pandas because pandas are appearing in places where they weren't before. But that's only a feeling," sighs Gu.

The census began at the end of June, focusing initially on Wanglang National Park, and then expanding to cover the whole of the panda region. The survey is coordinated by the state forestry bureau and isn't due to be finished until 2013.

"We look at all aspects of the panda's life. The first thing is to know how many pandas there are. That's what people want to know. But for us, the evaluation of the panda's habitat is the most important thing. We also research the panda's health, the parasites that affect them," explains Gu. As well as tracking the animals, the team assesses how the animals interact with local people. Human-panda relations have been thorny for centuries, and farmers used to kill pandas that encroached on their settlements. Pandas also sometimes become caught in traps set for other animals, such as deer.

Harsh punishment was introduced to stop poachers killing pandas for their pelts and the trade is believed to have largely stopped. In the mid-1990s one person was jailed for life for trying to sell a panda skin and, theoretically, trading in their pelts is a capital offence.

"There is still some resentment among local people, but they know how precious the pandas are and there is law to protect them," explains Gu. "And now we have funding to compensate farmers for the loss of income from the bamboo being destroyed by pandas and the end of deforestation."

If you want to be sure to see giant pandas in Sichuan, you have to go to the zoo or, even better, visit the Giant Panda Breeding Centre in Chengdu, where 12 panda cubs have been born this year out of 25 worldwide – eight others were born elsewhere in China. This is a focal point for the survey and, along with the Wolong Panda Research Centre, also in Sichuan, it's where nearly all the research on pandas in the wild takes place.

It is an impressive site, spread over 106 hectares and with 108 pandas altogether. It has not taken any animals from the wild in over two decades. In one enclosure, four baby pandas are curled up with each other snoozing, no doubt in training for a lifetime spent eating and sleeping.

Scientist Dr Qi Dunwu is deputy head of research at Chengdu Panda Base. The facility was set up in 1983, when 10 pandas were rescued from near-death and researchers began to look for ways to improve their ability to breed.

Dr Qi says it is difficult to know if we are getting any closer to being able to release pandas into the wild. Four years ago, Xiang Xiang, the first zoo-raised panda released into the wild, was killed, aged five, probably by other pandas.

"So far there have been no successful cases of releasing a panda that has been raised in captivity into the wild," admits Dr Qi. "Improving a panda's chances of surviving in the wild is one of the keys to releasing them, but it will take a long time to find out how. Since deforestation was stopped in 1998, new forest areas have grown near the farmers' homes, and some areas are seeing the appearance of more wild animals than before."

But some believe that China's beloved pandas are destined for extinction. The animal seems to embody a perfect storm of factors designed to render them obsolete in the evolutionary arena.

First, there is the diet issue. Pandas can't digest their food properly as they have an inefficient digestive system that cannot process cellulose well. They are officially categorised as carnivores, even though 99 per cent of their diet is not meat.

Vegetarians or not, pandas put away vast amounts of food – up to an average of 25 kilos a day each – and bamboo makes up around 95 per cent of their diet. They spend nearly 12 hours a day eating bamboo shoots, leaves and stems. Their main daily activity is simply digesting. Their paws have six digits – five fingers and a variant of an opposable thumb (actually a wrist bone) which it uses to hold bamboo while eating.

The bamboo itself presents challenges to the panda. The plants will flower and then die off roughly about every 20 to 40 years, at which point the pandas have to find fresh pastures; not an easy task, as natural habitats suffer in the rush to industrialise China. Pandas can starve while trying to locate new bamboo areas.

Just like everyone else in China, pandas tend to follow a one-child policy. They spend most of the year on their own, except during a three-month mating season, which begins in March each year. The female panda has only three days a year in which she can conceive, during which time she emits a distinctive sound and her sexual organs turn red, then white.

It's also very difficult to tell if a panda even is pregnant, given that a baby is just 1/900th of its mother's weight when it is born. Gestation also varies in length; average is around 160 days, but one panda at the centre was pregnant for twice that, a yawningly-long 324 days.

Females generally give birth to just one offspring, with the cub weighing no more than an apple. Females are not equipped to care for two cubs and if two are born, the mother will often abandon one or crush a cub in its sleep.

For years it was notoriously difficult to get pandas to breed in captivity, where they tend to lose interest in anything other than feeding. Only 300 have been born in research facilities and zoos since the programme began in 1963.

Some males never manage to, ahem, perform, so artificial insemination has become common practice when breeding captive pandas. Male pandas in captivity suffer from a chronic lack of sex drive – more than 60 per cent show no sexual desire at all in captivity, and only one-tenth of them will mate naturally.

Zookeepers have even resorted to sex education, using videos of mating pairs in the hope that what has become known as 'panda porn' will help the bears get frisky. Researchers at the base are resigned to the fact that 'panda porn' makes headlines, but they insist it's not a major part of their programme of encouragement. Animals often learn to mate by watching other animals, but in the case of the pandas it seems it was the sounds, rather than the images, that had the desired effect.

A far more significant advance in boosting the panda breeding programme came in 1980, when scientists learnt how to freeze panda sperm in liquid hydrogen, and since then the programme has come on in leaps. The methods used to get pandas making more pandas may seem humorous, but they do appear to be working.

Panda diplomacy, where China eases awkward diplomatic problems by loaning pandas to other countries as a symbol of friendship, has proven remarkably successful. China is extremely choosy about to whom it gives pandas – only nine zoos outside China have the bears, and in Europe only Vienna, Madrid and Berlin have giant pandas.

Legend has it that panda diplomacy stretches back to the seventh century, when the Empress Wu apparently presented a pair of bears to the Emperor of Japan. Scoot forward to the Second World War and pandas are doing their bit for foreign relations once more: Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader who later fled to Taiwan when he was on the losing side in the Chinese Civil War, gave a couple of the cuddly creatures to America.

The first giant panda to really make the headlines in Britain was Chi-Chi, who lived at London Zoo from 1958 until her death in 1972. She had come via Moscow and Berlin, and was due to go to the United States. Instead, she was hired out to London Zoo because there was no trade permitted between the US and China at that time. And China first used panda diplomacy with Richard Nixon in 1972, when it sent a pair of the docile beasts to Washington following the US president's visit to China.

Two years later, Britain's prime minister Ted Heath was also given a pair of pandas, Ching-ching and Chia-chia, whose on-off mating attempts at London Zoo gripped the public's attention. The last pandas owned by Britain were Ming Ming and Bao Bao, who visited from Berlin Zoo's. Alas, they failed to produce any offspring but came to blows instead. Not a happy union, and they left in 1994, Ming Ming heading back to China.

Edinburgh Zoo fought hard for five years to beat London Zoo this year when it borrowed a breeding pair named Tian Tian and Yang Guang. Li Keqiang, China's deputy premier, witnessed the signing of the deal along with Nick Clegg. The loan is for 10 years, but Edinburgh Zoo is not allowed to keep any baby pandas that might be produced – the offspring have to be returned to China shortly after birth.

The loan of a panda is expensive and can cost around £630,000 per panda per year, and that's before housing and medical care costs are factored in. But they bring in plenty of revenue in terms of merchandising and increases in visitor numbers: the British public has a soft-spot for furry things.

Although we're maybe not quite as in thrall to the bears as panda-lovers are in their native land. The Chinese are extremely proud – and protective – of their national treasures (the request to join their research trip was initially even met with suspicion, in case we were spies). One of the biggest draws at the Chengdu Panda Base is Gong Zai, a three-year-old giant panda who was the model for Po in the Kung Fu Panda films, and who has won many adoring fans.

Real or on screen, the public can't get enough of the black'n'white bears: Kung Fu Panda 2 dominated the Chinese box office this summer – and that was despite misgivings about foreigners making a cartoon of their national symbol. So important, and so esteemed, is this cuddly creature in China that the government has very strict rules about how the panda is used; it is forbidden to depict pandas as the villain in cartoons or films. Despite this, even the sceptics were forced to admit that the Kung Fu Panda movies portrayed the creatures in a sympathetic and affectionate manner.

But while the panda is ever more loved and in the limelight– as a star of blockbuster movies, or clocking up scores of viral videos hits on YouTube, or as a political PR tool in international relations – real pandas in the wild just want to keep to themselves. The census will, everyone hopes, show increasing numbers thriving in the wild, but all we see of them is those little piles of dung. For an animal as popular, yet private, as the panda, that's actually a rather good sign.

China's beloved bear

Being a reclusive creature, the panda wasn't actually discovered until 1869, and so doesn't appear in pre-20th-century Chinese art or literature. This made it a potent symbol for the Communist government: the panda was a blank-slate image, with no awkward associations with China's imperial past.

China has used pandas to ease political tensions, making gifts and loans of the rare creatures to the West. 'Panda diplomacy', as it became known, really kicked off in 1972, when Chairman Mao gave a pair of pandas to Richard Nixon.

The panda has become a Chinese national treasure, thanks to its cute features but also its supposed docile nature. This is the face China wants to show the world, and since the Seventies, the Chinese mint has produced gold and silver collectable coins embossed with the bears for export.

The panda was also a mascot during the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008. Such was the perceived appeal and importance of these mascots that the Sichuan province spent some £280,000 in lobbying to get the giant panda represented.

Holly Williams