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The giant panda is one of the national treasures of China. Many factors, related primarily to increased human activity, have caused a marked decline and geographic fragmentation of the wild population. To preserve this endangered species, the Chinese government, in partnership with many nongovernmental organisations (inside and outside China), has invested significant human and material resources to benefit in situ conservation. These collective efforts have resulted in the establishment of more than 40 nature reserves in southwest China in the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi.
Giant pandas have been sporadically maintained in captivity since the Han Dynasty (206 BC to AD 226) (see Chapter 1). However, it was not until the 1940s that there was serious interest in exhibiting the species in China. It took more than 20 years of giant panda husbandry experience to produce the first cub in captivity, at the Beijing Zoo in 1963. Much progress has been made in the subsequent years in understanding basic giant panda biology and making it possible for the species to reproduce consistently in captivity. This chapter reviews the brief history and significance of ex situ breeding efforts for the giant panda.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF EX SITU BREEDING PROGRAMMES FOR THE GIANT PANDA
The giant panda is particularly vulnerable to external pressures, in part because of an inherently slow rate of reproduction.
The study and control of diseases have not been traditional priorities in giant panda management, even though neonatal mortality, chronic and debilitating disease, compromised reproduction and premature death have been problems. Recent years have seen an increased awareness of the role of diseases in captive and free-living wildlife populations, with pathology integral to both diagnosis and creating new scholarly knowledge.
Growing concerns in the zoo community about the stress of captivity, pathogen transmission and the emergence of novel infectious agents are driving a rising interest in wildlife disease. It is also critical to understand diseases in ex situ populations of animals that may be released into the wild. The reintroduction of giant pandas into native habitats has been a focus of several conservation proposals, including the National Conservation Management Plan for China (MacKinnon et al., 1989). The recommended course of action in this plan failed to emphasise the importance of veterinary care and pathological investigations of illness and mortality in the captive population. Ten years later, the CBSG Giant Panda Biomedical Survey (1998 to 2000; Zhang et al., 2000; see Chapters 4 and 5) recognised that a clear understanding of health and disease must be a priority in the plan to secure a viable ex situ giant panda population. The next step then would be to integrate new information with mitigating approaches to optimise health, which, in turn, would promote reproduction.
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