– and sent to die in the wild: The cruel truth of China’s panda factories by Richard Jones and Hazel Knowles
It was a scene worthy of a Disney tear-jerker – and had a television audience to match. Leaving his mother behind, Tao Tao, the two-year-old giant panda, walked out of his cage and took his first uncertain steps to freedom in the mountain slopes of south-west China.
Behind him, the keepers who helped raise the cub from his birth in captivity watched as their young charge padded away into the bamboo-rich woodland where his fight to survive would begin.
No detail had been spared in the careful preparation for Tao Tao’s future. His keepers made a model leopard, complete with a roaring sound, to teach him about his potential predators.
When the model was put into his enclosure in June, he dutifully ran for cover. Staff at the breeding centre even dressed in panda outfits to prevent their young charge becoming too familiar with his human captors.
Images of Tao Tao’s release into the remote Liziping Nature Reserve in Sichuan ten days ago were broadcast around the world, just as the authorities intended, portraying an unusually humane side to the Chinese regime and demonstrating its absolute determination to save the giant panda, the national symbol, from extinction.
Today, Tao Tao is the only captive-bred giant panda in the wild. Officials boast that, if his release is a success, more young pandas will follow in his paw prints until the mountain forests of western China are once again home to a flourishing population.
If that is the vision served up to a credulous international audience, the reality is shockingly different. The truth is that wild pandas, their numbers already desperately low, are continuing to die out – their habitat disappearing beneath a tide of concrete as China’s economic juggernaut rolls on. It is entirely possible that there may be just a few hundred left.
Meanwhile the Chinese government makes millions lending captive-bred pandas to overseas zoos – including Edinburgh, which recently paid £6 million in a decade-long loan scheme.
Now one of China’s leading panda experts, with years of experience on the official breeding programme, has spoken out saying wild pandas have been driven to the brink of extinction, and that this much-vaunted programme of captive breeding not only traumatises young pandas, it puts the very survival of the species at risk.
Dr Sarah Bexell, director of Conservation Education at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, told The Mail on Sunday that captive-bred pandas are no more than a ‘caricature’ of the real thing and are unable to survive in the wild. Meanwhile, their natural habit continues to shrink at an alarming rate, under pressure from industrial development and the ‘raging fire’ of Chinese tourism.
That a senior figure within China should make such an intervention indicates how desperate the situation has become; such a candid portrayal of the panda’s plight is unprecedented. Other critics – those not employed by the Chinese government – are more forthright still, describing the ‘panda factory’ breeding centres as a fraud both on the Chinese public and the wider world.
China is currently conducting a new census to estimate how many giant pandas remain, the first since a decade ago when it was found that there were fewer than 1,600. Dr Bexell says she is ‘petrified’ at what the results might be.
It raises the alarming possibility that there might soon be more captive-bred giant pandas alive than wild ones.
Dr Bexell, an American who has spent more than a decade working with pandas in China, has also expressed her views in a new book, written with Dr Zhang Zhihe, head of the Chengdu centre, who supplied the photographs.
Giant Pandas: Born Survivors will be published next month by Penguin Viking and exposes the failure to preserve the panda’s habitat, while more and more resources are pumped into a lucrative captive-breeding programme that has so far produced more than 300 pandas since 1963 – none of them capable ever of living beyond the confines of a zoo.
Dr Bexell, says she was spurred to write when she witnessed the destruction of panda habitat in Sichuan. She watched, aghast, as lorries belching diesel trundled through one of the reserves where some of the last remaining wild animals live. It is, she says, symptomatic of what is happening to wildlife globally, but the panda is one of the most vulnerable animals of all.
There are those who believe the captive breeding programme, although not a perfect answer, might, at the very least, arrest the decline in panda numbers. But the precedents are not encouraging.
Tao Tao is following in the footsteps of another giant panda Xiang Xiang, the first captive-bred panda released in the wild three years ago. He was found dead ten months later, apparently chased to his death by wild pandas. It was a major embarrassment.
Like Tao Tao, he had been well trained, using videos of leopards so he would recognise his natural enemies and footage of pandas of various sizes and ages.
When he was thought ready, Xiang Xiang was given a collar with a GPS tracking device and moved to the mountainous Quyipeng area of Wolong, home to more than ten wild pandas. He had already been injured in one fight, before he was found dead at the foot of a tree.
Researchers later say they believe he took refuge in a tree after a fight with the wild pandas and then fell to his death. Xiang Xiang’s demise was kept out of China’s tightly controlled state media for three months.
Before the modernisation of China, the giant panda’s habitat was an endless stretch of lush bamboo forests stretching from Burma, through Laos and Vietnam and deep into southwest China.
Today, the world’s last remaining wild pandas – whose existence Dr Bexell and other experts believe is now in severe jeopardy – are hidden away in small pockets along six mountain ranges flanking the Tibetan plateau.
There are 62 reserves with a combined area of 10,000 square miles, equivalent to the size of Northumberland, in a country 40 times the size of Britain. The pockets of land are fragmented and shrinking due to mining and relentless industrial development, not to mention the demand for housing. Some reserves are less than a mile wide.
Experts agree that so-called bamboo corridors are needed to link the pockets of habitat so pandas can mix and mate and broaden their gene pool, an essential requisite to the survival of the species. But as the captive-breeding programme marches forward, there is scant evidence of anything being done to create these vital connections.
In some cases, the reserves are no more than token gestures. According to Dr Bexell, there are designated panda reserves that don’t have any pandas at all.
As well as mining and agriculture, the panda’s habitat is at increasing risk from Chinese tourists who head out in their droves to western China to revel in the mountain scenery and look for pandas in the wild. With breathtaking insensitivity, tour groups wolf down meat from red pandas, an unrelated cat-sized mammal that is listed as vulnerable, on their visits to the reserves. Meanwhile, hotels and roads proliferate without any apparent regard for the giant panda’s habitat.
Dr Bexell’s book says that the spread of tourism into the reserves has significantly increased the hazards pushing giant pandas towards extinction.
‘Wealthy new Chinese tourists buy their North Face hiking gear and head into the reserves, staying in home stays and eating wild animals,’ she says. ‘Red pandas are on every menu. That is the new big delicacy now.
‘The tourists all want to eat wild and organic mushrooms and bamboo shoots, more than ever as they are scared of the poison in mass-produced foods. They trample in the experimental zones of nature reserves and take what they can from the land.
‘These tourists also require infrastructure, roads, hotels, electricity, sanitation – the list goes on and on. And then there’s the noise and light pollution.
‘There is karaoke belting out into the night and into the nature reserves. There’s nothing more unsettling to animals than artificial noise and light.’
While the wild pandas are forced further back into their shrinking reserves, captive pandas are being born at the rate of more than 30 a year, their pictures beamed around the world in a succession of cute photo opportunities with every new batch of arrivals.
The captive-bred pandas, says Dr Bexell, are no substitute for the real thing. Moreover, in sucking up attention and investment, they are a distraction from the true plight of pandas in the wild and their ever-shrinking habitat.
‘The creatures we create in captivity are a caricature of wild animals. The cute, fluffy panda stories that we always read, where the scientists are saving the panda and everything is OK, are actually hurting the wild pandas.
‘Wild pandas are switched on and primed all the time to constantly sense all that is going on around them. Captivity, on the other hand, dulls that sense. Their life is pre-programmed. They are bored and have no need to think. It is like being in jail.’
Not that releasing them is any help. Indeed, an increasing number of experts believe that sending these ‘socially inadequate’ animals into the wild is cruel.
‘It’s like rearing a child in a closet and releasing it into the world at 15 years old,’ Dr Bexell continues. Releasing captive-bred pandas into the wild is ‘neither currently viable nor ethical.’
One of the biggest flaws of the captive-breeding programme is that baby pandas are separated from their mothers after six months. In the wild, baby pandas spend two years with their mothers learning vital social and survival skills before venturing out alone.
Dr Bexell recalls how, in 1999, a one-month-old cub she was caring for called Shi Shi was forced apart from its mother.
‘After their separation the once-confident little cub was completely traumatised,’ she says. ‘He would not play and he would not eat. He had given up on life.’
The reason for the separation? The panda’s mother was needed back on the conveyor belt to produce more offspring.
Those forced mother-and-cub separations are just one of the cruel side effects of the intensive breeding process.
During the breeding season, the centre becomes a brutal place as scientists use the window of opportunity to force the notoriously unromantic animals to reproduce.
Sperm is ‘drawn’ from the males by inserting an electrified rubber truncheon into their anus. Collected and frozen in special panda sperm banks, straws of sperm are then carefully inserted into unconscious females, who are strapped to wooden boards. The undignified and painful process is repeated daily during the annual ten-day window of fertility.
Even the few animals that breed naturally are subjected to the process for what scientists there say is ‘insurance’.
Clumsy attempts to put the pandas together to breed naturally can end in fights rather than lovemaking. Male and female pandas which end up brawling are sometimes separated by keepers throwing firecrackers into their enclosure, one scientist told The Mail on Sunday.
Despite its obvious cruelties, Dr Bexell believes the breeding programme has closed some scientists’ minds to other ways of saving the giant panda.
‘It is a last-ditch effort to secure the panda’s future,’ she said. ‘But we stopped thinking of other possibilities because captive breeding became so successful and so easy.’
Dr Bexell is not the only one to raise doubts. Dr Kati Loeffler, an expert with the International Fund for Animal Welfare who has spent years studying giant pandas in China, describes the use of panda suits as ‘deeply disturbing, offensive and disrespectful to animals’.
The suits, as others have suggested, may serve no purpose because pandas use their sense of smell to identify other animals, not their sight. Dr Loeffler lambasts the failure of Chinese officials.
‘The interest for pandas is supposed to be conservation of the species,’ she says. ‘But all the effort goes into captive breeding.
‘The animals born in captivity in China are raised in a highly human-dominated environment with severe environmental and psycho-behavioural challenges to the development of the animals. These individuals are not normal pandas, nor will they ever be.’
Originally, scientists agreed that China needed to build a stock of 300 captive giant pandas to keep the species from extinction. That figure was controversially raised to 500 three years ago, against the advice of many scientists.
Dr Loeffler says: ‘The argument for captive breeding is to raise a stock population for reintroduction into the wild. Reintroduction is entirely inappropriate for several reasons, the greatest of which is that there are no adequate, demonstrated efforts in China to restore, much less to preserve, the habitats that pandas need for their continued existence on the planet.’
Rather, the motivation for the increase in the stock of captive-bred pandas appeared to be the money generated by lending the pandas to overseas zoos. Few things are certain about how much money is raised or where it is spent.
A portion, certainly, is reinvested in the programme. It is clear, too, that little, if any, makes its way into the official panda reservations.
Last December, Edinburgh Zoo signed a £6 million deal to bring two eight-year-old giant pandas – Yang Guang and Tian Tian – to Britain from China for ten years in a move it believes will significantly boost visitor numbers. The pair are the first pandas in a British zoo for 17 years.
Last week biologist and television presenter Simon Watt added his voice to the criticism, saying the pandas could distract from areas where conservation money would be better spent.
The zoo’s director of research and animal conservation Iain Valentine disputes the claims, insisting the money they generate goes back into panda conservation and arguing the pandas pay for themselves.
But, according to Dr Loeffler, this is not always the case. She has found that, while the panda business is lucrative for China, it can have a devastating effect on the finances of overseas zoos.
‘The zoos that have pandas saw an increase in ticket income for the first year or so, but after that they fell away,’ she says. ‘Soon the zoos end up putting an inordinate amount of money into the pandas at the expense of other species that are just as deserving.
‘If the Chinese were serious about supporting the wild panda population, they would restore and properly protect wild panda habitats and keep humans as far away from them as possible.’
Instead, both the habitat and the panda population is shrinking. ‘Without a doubt, the number of wild pandas is decreasing and they are becoming more crowded and isolated in the little viable habitat that remains to them.’
Nature reserves for the pandas had only tiny areas where human activity is restricted, she says, and some have no restrictions at all. Meanwhile, there was evidence that the reserves were being plundered by locals.
‘We receive reports from people who are taken into the core areas [of reserves] by park rangers, and witness a steady stream of local people coming in with motorised vehicles to take away bamboo and other forest products.’
Even the panda breeding centres in China are far from public interference. More than one million visitors flock to centres in Wolong and Chengdu every year where they can pose with tame one-year-old panda cubs for a fee equivalent to £128. The chance to pose with a panda draws long queues of – almost exclusively Chinese – tourists despite the risk of disease being passed from humans to panda or agitated pandas attacking visitors.
For Dr Bexell, whose book is certain to cause a stir among officials in China, the prospect of giant pandas being allowed to die out in the wild, along with a growing list of other threatened species, is a crime against nature.
‘None of us should think that it is only the Chinese and their pandas that are affected by human behaviour. This is the issue that drove Dr Zhang and me to write the book.
‘Look at Brazil, or Madagascar – or even the US. Although pandas, being such an icon, bring everything into focus. It is incredibly painful that we may not be able to save them in the wild. If we cannot save our beloved wild panda, what hope is there for the rest of the world’s animals and even mankind?’
And what hope for Tao Tao? Somewhere in the thinning bamboo forests of southwest China, far away from the glare of publicity that surrounded his release, a bewildered young panda is attempting to survive in a strange and friendless new world. If he is still alive, that is.