Recently, I had the opportunity to give a presentation to several hundred San Diego Zoo Global donors at a Circle of Friends Holiday Breakfast. I presented an overview of our science-based, collaborative panda conservation program, focusing on both the challenges we’ve faced and the incredible successes we’ve enjoyed over the past 16 years. With hundreds of the Zoo’s friends gathered, we celebrated the birth of Xiao Liwu and the brighter future for pandas that Bai Yun, Gao Gao, and Shi Shi have given us.
Of course, the birth of Xiao Liwu was more than a joyous occasion: it was also a historic milestone for giant pandas and the San Diego Zoo. With the birth of Xiao Liwu, Bai Yun became the second-oldest female to have ever given birth in captivity, as well as the most successful panda mom outside China. And, thanks to Bai Yun, our Giant Panda Conservation Program became the most successful breeding program outside China. This short list makes me incredibly proud! And I also have to admit that it is simply wonderful to have yet another incredibly cute panda cub to watch every day!
Our giant panda story really began in earnest back in 1996, with the arrival of Bai Yun and Shi Shi. Back then, we really knew very little about giant pandas. At the time, we knew that giant pandas were solitary mammals and that they fed exclusively on bamboo. We knew that pandas were seasonal breeders, and that the females were only receptive to breeding for a few short days during each cycle. We also knew that giant pandas were critically endangered and that the track record for captive breeding was very poor. We knew that we had a daunting task ahead of us and an understanding that because giant pandas garner immense public attention, the world would be watching us as we embarked on this critical conservation mission.
Under the leadership of Dr. Don Lindburg, we put together a Giant Panda Team that included scientists, animal care specialists, and educators. Ron Swaisgood made incredible inroads at the Wolong breeding center in China and initiated more than a decade of invaluable scientific discovery regarding giant panda behavior and communication. Throughout this period, numerous people from the Giant Panda Team visited Wolong to do conservation research (including myself), and members of the Wolong team visited us here. These exchanges proved invaluable for scientific research and for improving how we managed giant pandas, during the breeding season and beyond.
Since the birth of Xiao Liwu, I have spent much time thinking about how much we have achieved in the past 16 years, as well as about how much we still need to learn about these amazing animals. The plight of giant pandas has improved in some ways since 1996, but they are still critically endangered, and so, through our conservation research program, and with the support of our many friends, we continue to work toward a brighter future for giant pandas.
After I gave my presentation to our Circle of Friends, I spent a great deal of time speaking to people in the group. It was incredible to experience the outpouring of interest in giant pandas and the support for the conservation work that we do. As I looked around the tent, I saw a number of people who had been volunteers in support of our conservation programs over the years: volunteers who had been part of our panda research team in San Diego, and volunteers who have helped us connect our giant pandas to the public at large. I feel a deep debt of gratitude to all our supporters, without whom we could not have achieved everything that we have, for giant pandas and the other species and habitats we work with.
Thank you all for your support, and I wish you the happiest of holiday seasons!
Megan Owen is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Polar Bears and Climate Change.