- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 20, 2004

The zoological world is in a state of panda-monium this week after a census placed the animal’s population at almost 1,600 — a number higher than expected — and the announcement of the pregnancy of the first American-born panda to survive to adulthood.

The last panda census, conducted in the 1980s, found between 1,000 and 1,100 pandas in the wild. The new four-year survey shows that number has risen — with more than 40 percent more animals in existence than previously thought. It is unclear as to whether this increase is due to more efficient surveying and data collection or a rebounding of the endangered species.

“It’s hard for me to believe that the panda population has increased its reproduction that dramatically,” said Don Lindburg of the San Diego Zoo.

The most recent survey not only revealed a higher number of pandas than originally was thought, it also uncovered evidence of panda populations existing in places not previously known to be their homes.

The survey was conducted by the World Wildlife Foundation and the State Forestry Administration of China.

According to the foundation, the major problems pandas face are poachers and habitat destruction. Laws and regulations, as well as the establishment of animal reserves in China, aim to protect the animals.

“China needs to be commended for their conservation methods,” Mr. Lindburg said.

Due to the overwhelming costs of these surveys, Jan Vertefeuille of the World Wildlife Foundation speculated that this would be the last survey of its kind.

“There probably won’t be another one,” Ms. Vertefeuille said. “People were seriously injured in this last one; one person died. It’s a huge undertaking and very costly.”

Hua Mei, the pregnant panda, was born in 1999 at the San Diego Zoo but was returned to China in February 2004.

By the end of 2003, there were a reported 166 giant pandas in captivity. Over the years, numerous attempts have been made to mate giant pandas, but many have been unsuccessful. The recent survey conducted in China found that pandas in the wild are not having the same mating problems as pandas in captivity.

“Pandas in the wild do just fine,” Ms. Vertefeuille said. “Zookeepers have a real hard time figuring out what the issue is for those in captivity.”

Mr. Lindburg said there was a wide range of reasons why pandas in captivity were experiencing difficulty mating. He said that some males are socially or physically inept, lack motivation or are in poor health. Most pandas born in captivity have been the result of natural reproduction.

“The vast majority are produced by natural means,” Mr. Lindburg said. “But Hua Mei was a product of artificial insemination. I think the main issue here is a mating episode is staged. It’s a multiplicity of factors. But improvements have been made, especially in China.”

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