The Complicated Legacy Of A Panda Who Was Really Good At Sex

Okaren Wille noticed her panda good friend for the final time in July 2016. He was in unhealthy form. He was skinny. His once-sleek black-and-white fur had dulled. Wille, a board member and volunteer with the nonprofit Pandas International, knew higher than to count on wildlife-calendar perfection, airbrushed and coiffed. Even essentially the most charismatic of megafauna have off days. Behind the large eyes and rounded frames that sign vulnerability and cuddliness to the human mind, pandas are actual, stay, 200-pound bears. Bears that can shred your flesh. Bears that roll round within the grime and switch themselves dingy grey. Bears that develop previous and frail.

But it was nonetheless onerous to see actuality catching as much as her good friend. Wille had been to China to go to this particular bear many occasions earlier than. This time, although, no person wished to speak a lot about how he was doing. His keepers had been extra protecting than regular. Wille had about 5 minutes with him — sufficient time for a pat on the top and a carrot. She was heartbroken, however not shocked, when he died 5 months later.

His identify was Pan Pan. It interprets to one thing like “hope,” an id that doubtless meant one factor when he was an deserted, sick cub on a Chinese mountainside and one thing very completely different later in his life.

When he died from cancer on Dec. 28, 2016, the 31-year-old Pan Pan was the world’s panda paterfamilias: the oldest recognized residing male and the panda (male or feminine) with essentially the most genetic contribution to the species’ captive inhabitants. Today, there are 520 pandas residing in analysis facilities and zoos, principally in China. Chinese officers say greater than 130 of them are descendants of Pan Pan.

Pan Pan saved his species by being actually, actually, ridiculously good at intercourse. Before Pan Pan, consultants thought that build up a steady inhabitants of captive pandas was going to require intensive use of synthetic insemination. Pan Pan not solely led the way in which on reproducing in captivity, he taught us that pandas had been completely able to doing it for themselves — they usually’re now more and more allowed to take action. Scientists say large pandas signify, palms down, essentially the most profitable captive animal breeding program people have ever launched into, and, partly, now we have Pan Pan to thank. He was an enormous, fluffy stud muffin, and he was beloved. “It sounds sort of bizarre,” Wille mentioned of their first assembly in 2012. “Most individuals need to meet rock stars or film stars. I wished to fulfill Pan Pan. He was a legend.”

From the sting of extinction, Pan Pan (and pandas) emerged triumphant. And their success can also be ours — proof that possibly people actually can clear up the ecological messes that we make. In September 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared pandas to now not be endangered. The animal whose picture actually represents the combat towards extinction is now merely “weak.” Humans can experience off into the sundown with our heads held excessive.

At least, that’s one option to inform the story. But simply as residing bears are messier than their plush, gift-shop counterparts, the truth of conservation science is extra difficult and nuanced than a poster or a press convention can convey. Pan Pan’s story is about human triumph — and it’s additionally about our limitations. Even essentially the most well-intentioned plans have unpredictable penalties. And we will by no means really erase a legacy of hurt. Instead, we level a species in a brand new path, we cross our fingers, and we hope.

Ready for his or her close-up: Two units of panda cubs are ready to fulfill the general public in China. The photograph on the best is from 2013; the cubs on the left had been born this 12 months.


In 1983, bamboo stalks throughout south-central China’s Baoxing County all went to seed on the identical time, and panda consultants panicked. While bamboo forests seem densely filled with crops, these signify the cloned offshoots of a mere handful of people, every of which can stay to be solely about 60 years previous. Near the top of its life, the bamboo plant (and its lots of of 1000’s of copies) makes one try at sexual replica. Heavy lots of seeds develop from the stalks, bending them over like wheat prepared for harvest. The seeds scatter and the crops — all of them, for miles round — die.

When that occurs, it’s unhealthy information for panda bears. Despite having the guts and stomachs of carnivores, panda diets are almost exclusively made up of bamboo. After a mass bamboo die-off, it can take 10 to 20 years earlier than the forest is totally re-established. That means years of famine for pandas — years of consuming bugs and grass, years of intestinal issues and starvation, years of illness and loss of life. This cycle is pure, however human actions have made it more durable. By the late 20th century, farms, roads and the logging business had hemmed the bears in, making it tough for them to easily lumber alongside to a spot the place bamboo was nonetheless plentiful. Habitat loss, actually, was the first situation forcing pandas to the brink of extinction. When the United States formally listed the panda as an endangered species in 1984, the Federal Register famous that your entire panda species — 1,000 people — was residing on 11,000 sq. miles of land. Just 4 years later, China’s Second National Giant Panda Survey would present this estimate to have been incorrect. Instead, these 1,000 pandas had been residing on simply 5,000 sq. miles.

To shield the pandas, Chinese officers carried out emergency measures: refugee camps for ravenous pandas, meals drops the place staff left piles of cooked pork chops within the forest, a child elevate operation that scooped up younger pandas and deposited them in zoos and analysis facilities the place nothing may come between them and a daily dinner bell. And that is how Pan Pan got here into our world. It’s not clear who discovered him, however he quickly ended up within the dwelling of a person named Li Wuke, who was already caring for an additional child panda referred to as An An.

Li Wuke performed surrogate father to 2 pandas, Pan Pan and An An.

This a part of Pan Pan’s story isn’t well-documented, and what bits of it have been handed down, largely by Chinese media, make the state of affairs sound like a cross between a shoestring animal rescue operation and the elevator pitch for an animated musical. Li Wuke was an previous man who lived in a tiny home within the mountains. He fed the 2 cubs, scolded them after they had been naughty and slept between them at night time in a single slender mattress.

Pan Pan was a lovable plush mascot within the making — however he was additionally beginning a life as a scientific analysis topic. Conservation isn’t often described as an experiment, however in some ways, that’s precisely what it’s. The Chinese authorities had been working onerous to maintain pandas secure since 1946, when it banned panda export and looking by foreigners. But within the 1980s, the mix of a really actual risk of extinction and advancements in reproductive technology turned consideration to captive breeding. A wholesome, self-sustaining inhabitants of captive pandas might be a security web — assurance that the species would survive even when people destroyed its habitat. That inhabitants may even be used to repopulate the wild, therapeutic the harm people prompted. But no person knew precisely tips on how to do all of that.

On April 7, 1986, Pan Pan was given his first entry within the Giant Panda Studbook — a factor that actually does exist — as Panda No. 308. The guide is the definitive database cataloging the biographical particulars of each panda that has ever lived in captivity. It describes Pan Pan as a wild male, doubtless born the earlier 12 months and captured in Baoxing. And whereas the information reviews recommend that Pan Pan’s idyllic childhood frolicking across the ft of Li Wuke lasted only one 12 months, his entry within the studbook reveals 5 unaccounted-for years in captivity in Baoxing, a spot that will take him to sexual maturity. On March four, 1991, he was transferred to the panda breeding middle on the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan province. Wherever he was throughout the intervening years, reaching breeding age meant that Pan Pan, the beloved orphan, was now No. 308, the potential sire.

Pandas usually are not the one species whose lives are recorded in the staccato of a studbook — identify, date, serial quantity. You can discover related books for elephants, gorillas, golden tamarinds — mainly any animal whose existence has ever been severely threatened sufficient that people need to ensure that it has a lot of infants, and that these infants are genetically completely different sufficient from each other that they might maintain the species alive with out inbreeding. These paperwork are the checkbooks for residing, respiration organic financial institution accounts. And they assist scientists resolve tips on how to make investments these financial savings within the type of breeding plans: which animals will mate, when they’ll mate, and what number of infants have to be made every year.

But initially, there weren’t many panda births to file. At the time of Pan Pan’s first entry within the studbook, way more captive pandas had been introduced in from the wild than born underneath human care, a fact that would remain true for another decade. In reality, between 1936 and 1998, solely 12 males and 21 females reproduced in captivity in any respect. And of the captive cubs that had been born from 1963 to 1998, 48 percent died within their first month of life. Few child pandas lived previous age three.

It’s not irregular to initially battle to get a wild species to breed in captivity, however pandas proved to be notably resistant. Some of that has to do with biology. Both men and women stay solitary lives within the wild, coming collectively to breed yearly, during the two or three days when the females are fertile. If this works, and a child (or two) is born, it can stick with its mom for so long as three years.

This naturally sluggish course of had a popularity for getting much more slowed down behind bars. When Pan Pan arrived at Wolong, the factor captive panda mating pairs had been greatest at producing was awkward moments. Sometimes, males wouldn’t seem inquisitive about intercourse, as if they’d stumbled right into a boudoir after they had been in search of the kitchen. Other occasions, they’d simply form of dry-hump, like youngsters at the back of a Chevy. Worst of all had been the occasions when both the male or feminine would get aggressive, lashing out violently at their would-be associate.

This is panda replica as most of us are in all probability accustomed to it: bumbling, generally brutish and massively unproductive. Then got here Pan Pan, the Dean Koontz to the opposite male pandas’ J.D. Salinger. Just six months after Pan Pan arrived at Wolong, his first baby was born, a daughter referred to as Bai Yun, who now lives within the San Diego Zoo. That’s remarkably fast work given panda gestation interval lasts three to 5 months. Papa was a rolling stone.

By 1999, Pan Pan was the first male breeding at Wolong, mentioned David Wildt, head of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Species Survival. In 2004, Pan Pan was featured in a research paper that quantified behavioral variations in mating success. The conclusion: He (and a few different notably profitable males) had been simply typically extra inquisitive about intercourse — and male curiosity in intercourse was a significant component in whether or not mating occurred. The paper famous that Pan Pan stood out for his particularly lengthy copulation time, upwards of seven minutes on common. “We have seen Pan Pan dragged by females across the complete circumference of the enclosure with no interruption of coitus,” the paper famous.

By 2006, Pan Pan was the mum or dad of greater than 30 cubs. No different panda, male or feminine, even got here shut. Meanwhile, the variety of child pandas born every year started to skyrocket. In 1991, the 12 months Pan Pan’s first baby was born, there have been eight new captive panda cubs worldwide, in response to the studbook. In the 12 months 2000, 20 had been born. Today, it’s not unusual to get twice that variety of panda infants in a 12 months. By early October, the 2017 crop had reached 63. Pandas at the moment are in such fine condition as a species that scientists at Wolong have begun a program to return them to the wild. Pan Pan has grow to be generally known as the “Hero Father.”

This is perhaps the purpose the place Pan Pan’s story begins to sound weirdly acquainted, a minimum of to these of you who’ve spent a lot time studying the Old Testament or the Koran. Lost boy discovered within the tall grasses? Taken in by a kindly stranger and raised as a prince? He turns into a terrific chief of his individuals, however — simply as they attain the promised land that he has helped them to seek out — he dies. The metaphor suits collectively sort of eerily effectively. Except for one awkward bit. If Pan Pan is Moses, then we, humanity, are left taking part in the a part of Egypt.

If the small print of Pan Pan’s life doc people’ success as conservators, these particulars additionally doc the complexity of what “success” actually means. Again, conservation is an experiment. When we take an animal to the brink of extinction and again, that isn’t the identical as returning to a pristine previous. There are unintended effects that may’t be averted. There are money owed that may’t simply be repaid. Saving a species from ourselves is messy — and we aren’t all the time the heroes of that story.

For occasion, the bears have typically been framed as their very own worst enemies — reluctant to mate, sluggish to breed. Faced with essentially the most primal of animal urges, these specific animals don’t really feel particularly pressing. But that stereotype is constructed on human error — and the errors we made in our early, clumsy makes an attempt at matchmaking.

We wished pandas to have intercourse on our phrases, as analysis topics. We anticipated them to mate in public, with no matter companions we selected for them, no actual likelihood to get accustomed to one another and little information of how grownup pandas negotiate intercourse. “But … pay attention right here,” mentioned Meghan Martin-Wintle, govt director of the captive-breeding analysis nonprofit PDXWildlife and a postdoctoral researcher on the San Diego Zoo Global Institute for Conservation Research. “Animals select companions based mostly on a wide range of causes. As people, we don’t even perceive what these causes are.”

And, when the pandas predictably rebelled towards this expertise, people turned to synthetic insemination — a course of that amounted to minor outpatient surgical procedure. During synthetic insemination, male pandas must be anesthetized after which stimulated into ejaculating with the help of an electric probe positioned of their rectums. Female pandas additionally must be sedated throughout the precise insemination. Some bears went by this course of a number of occasions throughout their fertile interval yearly, mentioned Kati Loeffler, a veterinary adviser to the International Fund for Animal Welfare and former director of animal well being on the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in western China. Loeffler has since become a fierce critic of animal welfare practices inside the panda breeding program.

But it wasn’t synthetic insemination that led to the panda child increase. Instead, that success was the results of a sluggish realization that pandas did higher breeding on their very own phrases, as bears. Today, Wolong and its community of breeding facilities favor the pure mating methods that made Pan Pan well-known, mentioned Martin-Wintle and different researchers. There, pandas are given alternatives to mate with a number of companions. Young males get to see different adults mating. When it’s their first time, they’re paired with skilled females. Even when females are each inseminated and allowed to mate naturally, the daddy often seems to be one of many pure mates, mentioned Kathy Traylor-Holzer, senior program officer of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Conservation Planning Specialist Group. Meanwhile, the zoos nonetheless most depending on synthetic insemination are locations that solely have two grownup pandas who just aren’t that into each other.

Zookeepers in London in 1968 hoped Chi Chi would mate with a Russian panda named An An (left), however no luck. Lei Lei and Pan Pan (proper), however, had been a extra profitable pairing in China in 1996.


We got down to assist pandas reproduce however ended up creating an issue that hadn’t beforehand existed — and which we then had to determine tips on how to clear up. And that’s a theme that turns up time and again on this complete 40-year, multi-generational experiment. Consider all these fluffy child pandas. Their numbers have meant that, over the previous 5 – 6 years, the main focus of the panda breeding program has been in a position to shift from merely making as many pandas as doable to creating positive the pandas which are born are genetically numerous sufficient to hold the species ahead for lots of of years. There at the moment are sufficient child pandas that, in November 2016, the Chinese authorities started to significantly focus on sustaining the captive inhabitants at present ranges, slightly than persevering with to extend it, Traylor-Holzer instructed me. That’s a serious success.

But it comes at a worth — lots of of pandas residing in perpetual captivity. Whether that’s inherently an issue is a philosophical query, greater than a scientific one. But it’s straightforward to lose sight of the truth that not one of the roly-poly cuddle balls you’ve seen in online videos or on show at zoos will ever make the journey again to the forest. Instead, they, like Pan Pan, will develop previous and die in our care — a coming increase in panda geriatrics presaged by the existence of Dujiangyan, a panda analysis middle close to the central Chinese metropolis of Chengdu that has a program centered on the wants of aged bears and the place Pan Pan spent his last years.

Wolong has a wild launch program, however it’s nonetheless small and only a few animals are launched every year. For instance, in response to the 2016 panda breeding report, revealed in November 2015, there have been 423 pandas in captivity — and two of them had been scheduled for launch. The subsequent 12 months, there were none scheduled for launch. That’s partly as a result of evolution continues to be at work, even inside the partitions of a breeding middle or the cages at a zoo. When wild creatures are born and raised in captivity over a number of generations, we have a tendency to coach them for it and provides particular consideration to those that get on greatest with us, mentioned Nate Flesness, science director emeritus of Species360, a global nonprofit that manages studbooks for 1000’s of zoos and aquariums. We cultivate them, like cows, even when we don’t imply to. In captivity, you need animals that aren’t wired by the presence of individuals, that may undergo mating, or a medical examination, and that gained’t assault someone who involves feed them. Pan Pan was a kind of bears. And once we breed animals like that rather a lot, we’re choosing for tameness, Flessness mentioned.

But it’s in no way clear that the traits that made Pan Pan good at adjusting to captivity and performing sexually in a cage would make his descendants good at returning to the wild he got here from. For occasion, Bai Yun, his first baby, who now lives in San Diego, is herself a prolific breeder. She’s the mother of six of the 16 surviving cubs born in the U.S. And she can also be recognized for being notably congenial to people — mendacity nonetheless for ultrasounds and urinating on command. In distinction, the animals that go away Wolong and return to the wild are mainly raised within the reverse method as Pan Pan. Newborn bears are left with their moms in large, semi-wild enclosures — a patch of forest with a fence round it. Human contact is stored to an absolute minimal. There have even been breeding pairs chosen with wild launch in thoughts, Traylor-Holzer instructed me. Big, lovely, impartial bear, looking for identical. Must not love people.

There are downsides to letting one bear romance his method by the inhabitants, and Pan Pan’s outsized genetic contributions finally got here to be seen as extra of a bug than a characteristic. Late in his life, Chinese scientists started selecting panda breeding pairs in ways in which lowered Pan Pan’s lengthy shadow. In 2006, about 12 p.c of the entire captive panda gene pool descended from Pan Pan. By 2016, this was all the way down to lower than 9 p.c.

Nor has that breeding program — profitable although it’s — fastened the issues that put Pan Pan and his compatriots in danger to start with: habitat discount and threats from people. This reality highlights how onerous it may be to resolve which aspect of conservation — captive breeding vs. wild safety — ought to get essentially the most sources.

It’s not that we’ve ignored wild pandas. China has made some huge strides, establishing 67 panda reserves by 2013. These nationwide parks place limits on what people can do and the place they’ll go, they usually’re credited with an enormous a part of rising the wild inhabitants. The Fourth National Giant Panda Survey, revealed in 2015, discovered 1,864 pandas residing on greater than 10,000 sq. miles.

But pandas’ lack of ability to journey from one place to a different continues to be an enormous drawback, mentioned Colby Loucks, senior director of the World Wildlife Federation’s wildlife conservation program. The panda reserves cover 58 percent of the pandas’ range, however each the reserves, and the panda inhabitants generally, are remoted from each other. A paper published in September 2017 discovered that whereas patches of habitat accessible for pandas have elevated in quantity, the common measurement of these patches is 13 p.c smaller than it was in 1988. The forest the place pandas stay is thinning like mangy fur.

Panda conservation is full of odd moments. At left, a feeder dressed as a panda hugs an ursine counterpart throughout a bodily examination at Wolong Nature Reserve in 2011. At proper, Dr. Kurt Benirschke, president of the Zoological Society of San Diego, unfurls a banner naming a brand new panda cub in December 1999. The panda was named Hua Mei, or “China USA.”


Remember that this drawback — and its impact on the pandas’ potential to answer a meals scarcity — is strictly why Pan Pan needed to be rescued in 1986. But habitat disconnection also can result in genetic bother. That’s as a result of remoted bears are inbred bears. You don’t need any single household to have too huge a job in a inhabitants. Just as we didn’t need Pan Pan contributing an excessive amount of to the small inhabitants of captive pandas, we don’t need wild panda teams to grow to be remoted from each other for too lengthy.

That’s particularly harmful for the smallest inhabitants teams, Loucks mentioned. And, when it occurs, people have to decide on: Let a wild inhabitants of endangered creatures slip away, or go to comically elaborate lengths to unravel a right away disaster whereas not altering the system that created it.

The latter occurred in Florida, the place human improvement lower off a inhabitants of panthers from associated huge cats in the remainder of the nation. Those panthers turned inbred sufficient that people had been beginning to show bodily issues corresponding to irregular sperm counts and kinked tails. In 1995, researchers needed to airlift in some genetic range, within the type of eight female cougars who were captured in Texas and woke from a tranquilizer nap to seek out themselves the mail-order brides of a wildly completely different ecosystem. Stories like this are a stark reminder that, regardless of captive pandas’ excessive charges of genetic range, the wild inhabitants may simply proceed to develop in numbers while drifting toward genetic similarity.

Captive breeding can’t repair that. These are the sort of issues that Steven Beissinger, professor of conservation biology on the University of California, Berkeley, wrote about in 1996 in a extremely cited paper on the limitations of captive breeding. Many of the issues he and his co-authors recognized then nonetheless exist. Not solely does captive breeding contain choosing people for traits which may not be helpful within the wild (take into consideration Pan Pan and his human-friendly offspring), however, with out sufficient emphasis on habitat conservation, you would find yourself reaching the objective of untamed launch — solely to ship these fastidiously bred animals again to the identical issues that that put their species in danger to begin with.

Some of the best success tales of conservation science are tinged with this irony. Take the California condor, a species that was all the way down to 22 individuals in 1982 earlier than scientists started breeding them in captivity and releasing them to the wild. At the end of 2016, there have been 276 of them flying free. But that sort of resuscitation just isn’t precisely the identical factor as therapeutic the affected person. We bred condors and launched them again into the wild, positive. But we by no means banned the lead shot that turned what the condors eat — animal carcasses — into lethal poison.

Today, Beissinger says, each “wild” condor is tracked by radio collar, recurrently recaptured and examined for its lead ranges. We feed them, too — a supply service of lead-free useless cows. Our efforts straddle the road between making certain the species survives and making certain it may fend for itself like a very wild factor.

And the variety of species that might find yourself in this sort of state of affairs is rising. There isn’t actually a coordinated, international effort to watch biodiversity on Earth and, in consequence, it’s difficult to definitively say whether or not there are extra species in want of rescue at the moment than, say, 40 or 50 years in the past. But elevated efforts to grasp and forestall extinction throughout that point interval have meant extra species documented, counted and formally acknowledged as being in danger. And thus, there are extra species now we have to sit down down and determine tips on how to save.

Captive breeding will — and will — play a job in that. But, Beissinger mentioned, there’s going to be a terrific temptation to depend on it an excessive amount of as an alternative of crafting a steadiness. It simply appears a lot simpler than forcing people to vary their habits — politically, socially, philosophically. It offers us the flexibility to really feel like we actually can clear up the ecological messes we make. “But it’s simpler to load the ark than unload it,” he instructed me.

The different aspect of Pan Pan’s legacy is that this: Once you break a species, you possibly can’t simply put it again collectively once more. The cracks will nonetheless present. Conservation is essential, however it doesn’t undo the previous. It can solely assist a species transfer ahead, towards a future we don’t completely perceive. From the second Pan Pan was carried off that mountain and into the arms of a kindly previous man, he may by no means go dwelling once more.

Zhang Meng, considered one of a handful of captive-born pandas who’ve been launched to the wild, left humanity behind in 2016.


During the final couple of years of his life, when he was housed in an enclosure with a tree-filled yard at Dujiangyan, Pan Pan lived subsequent door to considered one of his grandsons. That bear’s identify is Tai Shan. He was born in 2005, a product of synthetic insemination, the primary child panda to outlive infancy on the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington. Like all pandas born within the U.S., Tai Shan is the property of the Chinese authorities, not the zoo of his delivery. In 2010, he was despatched to the mom nation, buying and selling life as an American superstar known in the press as “Butterstick” for a extra nameless routine as one other captive panda who may, sometime, grow to be a mum or dad.

Karen Wille used to go to go to Pan Pan and Tai Shan collectively and watch them watch one another by a window between their enclosures. On one aspect of the wall, there was the pandas’ previous — a bear saved from the brink of loss of life, a species rescued from extinction. On the opposite, the doable way forward for pandakind — secure, well-fed, semi-domesticated. Wille appreciated to suppose the 2 bears had some sort of connection, that they had been drawn to one another. It’s a concept that will sound foolish if it weren’t for the truth that analysis suggests it’s not completely out of the query. Turns out, the scents pandas go away on bushes and partitions are distinctive sufficient that you would be able to establish people by their chemical profile.

Two not-so-wild animals, linked by genetics and destiny, their existence in that place each a reminder of how profitable panda conservation has been and the way a lot additional we nonetheless must go. It’s not an enormous stretch to think about that possibly, simply possibly, there was one thing Pan Pan and Tai Shan discovered acquainted as they leaned their huge, fluffy our bodies towards the concrete separating them from one another. Even in the event that they didn’t know what it was.

Special because of Henry Nicholls, who supplied me with a 2006 model of the panda studbook knowledge and whose guide “The Way of the Panda is a superb supply for anybody who needs to know extra concerning the science and politics of panda breeding. And to Ronald Swaisgood, Brown Endowed director of restoration ecology on the San Diego Zoo, who supplied me with the 2013 model of the studbook knowledge. Without these sources, I might have by no means “met” Pan Pan.

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