The Importance of Giant Panda Reintroduction

By our Science Team

Reintroducing animals to the wild is an arduous task, requiring foresight, decades of hard work, and cooperation among scientists, NGOs, and government. But history shows us that it can work and that it is absolutely necessary:

• In 1889, there were only 1,000 American bison, down from an estimated 60 million a century before. Today there are more than 360,000, including 15,000 free-ranging in the wild.
• The last 27 California condors were captured from the wild 25 years ago to start a captive breeding program. Today there are over 420 individuals, more than half of which live in the wild.
• Red wolves were declared extinct in the wild in 1980. Today roughly 70 wild born red wolves roam the woods in North Carolina.
• Less than 200 golden lion tamarins lived in the jungles of Brazil in the 1960’s. Today there are over 1000 throughout their native jungles.
• Black-footed ferrets remained in only one location in the USA before being declared extinct in the wild 30 years ago. Today over there are over 500 wild individuals, including roughly 300 born in the wild.

These amazing animals represent just a few of the species that now exist in the wild because of successful captive breeding and reintroduction programs.

Most threatened species face multiple challenges in the wild. Climate change compounds habitat loss; poaching weakens genetic diversity; human encroachment brings in disease. Setting aside land for habitat helps, but is not enough.

Unless we learn to move cubs from captivity to nature, giant pandas could become extinct in the wild. This is a fact. It deserves serious attention.

Wild giant pandas are at great risk. Many panda reserves have few or no pandas; genetic diversity is low; the reserves are separated from each other by highways, cities, rivers, and other barriers. These problems will worsen as climate change causes habitats to shift. We must use every possible means to save them.

There are about 2,000 giant pandas in the wild. It wouldn’t take much to decimate them further. Mass bamboo flowering (as occurred in the 1970’s), fast spreading diseases (to which pandas seem very vulnerable), and human demand for resources (particularly in any future economic downturn) could quickly cut panda populations throughout their range. The long-term survival of wild giant pandas is very much in doubt. We need to learn how to move panda cubs successfully from captivity into nature so we can increase the wild population and strengthen its genetic diversity. That won’t be easy or quick, but it is vitally important.

The only way to ensure the future of wild giant pandas tomorrow is to do everything in our power to save them today.

Giant pandas are very slow breeders, with each female producing at most one viable cub every two years. Not all of these cubs live long enough to reproduce. Left to themselves, even in the best scenario it will take centuries for existing wild populations to reach healthy levels. Other potential habitats will remain devoid of pandas forever. A comprehensive conservation plan for giant pandas must account for these problems, and the only feasible way to counter them is through reintroduction.

Reintroducing captive-bred giant pandas successfully to the wild will be difficult and may take a long time. We at Global Cause are working closely with our colleagues at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding to solve the puzzle. We are approaching the task with careful, innovative methods. Through high quality research and good, practical experience, we expect to be successful. We have committed to this today because we know that tomorrow may be too late.

Our goal is to save giant pandas in the wild. For their sake, we must learn how to move cubs successfully from captivity to the wild. If you truly love giant pandas, wish us well!

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