Speaking to Friends about Pandas

Xiao Liwu is just one example of our Giant Panda Conservation Program’s success.

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.

10 Responses to Speaking to Friends about Pandas

  1. I work that the headquarters of the Northern California Salvation Army. I started following “Little Gift” from the beginning and now I have many co-workers that watch the panda cam all day long. We keep the cam on our computer so we can take a quick glance all throughout the day. We will call one another and ask “are you watching, did you see what just happened”. Each of us feel the same, that watching the pandas, especially “Little Gift” brings so much joy to our day. We are so inlove with mommy and baby and our hearts just melt on a daily basis. Thank you for providing the panda cam for everyone to enjoy. Merry Christmas to all!!!

  2. I do appreciate all that you have done for the giant pandas at SDZ Global, Megan. And I appreciate you all in keeping us in touch with your research. It is truly an honor to be a part of it all, if even in such a small way. I am touched that you make each and every one of us feel like we are a part of it all! Continued success!!

    Happy holiday to you, Megan, and your family!!

  3. Actually, this is the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (NEST) website and I’ve taken you directly to the Rehab Blog. NEST is composed of all volunteers in Dare County on the Outer Banks (barrier islands) off NC. Among our volunteers are two full-time employees of the state of NC, Christian Legner who is curator of NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island and KC Clark of NC Wildlife Resources. There are many more dedicated state and federal employees who guide us, teach us, monitor us. You are the people who allow us, the volunteers, to live out our dreams of being hands on and to contribute to the future of so many amazing beings. I had never imagined I would someday be coordinating and training volunteers to work directly with ancient reptiles who can steal your heart and bite off your hand…right there feeding, removing barnacles, cleaning poop (very smelly), feeling thru poop (worse), etc, as well as being asked for my opinion of different issues.

    I write the actual blog for NEST’s Rehab and have totally enjoyed Bai Yun’s sweet baby panda Xiao Liwu thru your blog and learning about Gao Gao. You have helped me with my blog and given me hours of joy watching the cam. My first panda experience was visiting Ling Ling in D.C. I can still visualize this storybook being for the first time…sitting, facing me and munching on bamboo.

    Thank you!

  4. Loved the new pic of the baby panda! I have a trip to San Diego planned early January just so I can see the pandas you have. Very much looking forward to visiting your zoo and its families.

    Have a blessed holiday!
    Donna from New Jersey

  5. Thanks, Megan. I attended the Circle breakfast with some of my family — son and grandchildren — and we all were so impressed with your presentation. We knew some of what you told us, but you were able to fill in lots of blanks in this incredible story. So many, many thanks to you, Ron, and the rest of our team that helped build this wonderful cooperation with China and helped us to achieve such success here. I can’t wait to see little Xiao Liwu when Bai Yun finally decides he’s ready to make his zoo debut!!

    • Thank you so much, Shirley! It was great to see you at the Circle breakfast, and I really appreciate you long-term support of our programs. Happy Holidays.

  6. Hi

    I think you are doing a great job, and I still have many videos I saved from Wai Mai (incorrect spelling). I was on dial up Internet then and I spent a fortune on watching her.

    I found it amazing to be in the Uk and be able to watch this wonder, and I have watched ever since.


    Julieann Nicoll

  7. Many congratulations on your breeding of the giant panda’s.
    Bai yun has been a brilliant mum.
    I have followed Xiao Liwu since the birth and have spent many hours watching mum and cub on the webcam.
    You have all done a brilliant job. Xiao Liwo is so cute and a complete joy to watch.

    Linda Holden, Hampshire UK.

  8. It is hard to believe it has been 16 yrs of following the panda saga I have been a panda fan and lover of the panda since I saw a traveling exhibit at Brookfield Zoo in Chicago at a toddler. I have watched the changes at the SD Zoo since the beginning and enjoy coming every year to see the newest cub and my favorite Shi Shi. I have watched them at the howdy gate bellow in preperation for mating and playing in the various exhibits. I plan on doing my usual Feb visit to them and follow their lives over the WebCam Keep up the good work – I can see where my donations go to and the effort here in the US and in China is helping a critically endangered species

  9. Thank you for reflecting on SDZ panda program. Since the birth of the pandas at SDZ, I became hooked on these black and white bears. Have followed the different zoo cams, started reading books on the history of pandas and spending lots of time observing them on the cams.

    Looking forward to the Panda Convention in March. This will be my second time and am looking forward to our private time with the new panda and our special Brunch and talk by Suzanne.