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o World Wildlife Fund
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The Pandas Are Coming!
With Karen Baragona,
Panda Conservation Specialist, World Wildlife Fund

Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2000; 3 p.m. EST

Karen Baragona is a senior program officer in the species conservation program at the World Wildlife Fund, a group dedicated to educating the public about the need for conservation and species preservation. A former volunteer at the National Zoo, Baragona lived in China for two years. She has been with the WWF for four years.

For more information, see Sunday's article, National Zoo Prepares for Two Colorful New Characters, by Philip P. Pan in China; Saturday's article, Panda Pair to Settle in Before Debut, by D'Vera Cohn; and exclusive photos of the two pandas coming to Washington, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, in the Wolong Panda Preserve in China.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.







washingtonpost.com: Hi Karen, and thanks for joining us today. To start, can you tell us a little about your work with the World Wildlife Fund?

Karen Baragona: Hi. Well, I work in the Species Conservation Program here at World Wildlife Fund, where I manage our giant panda conservation program as well as our whale & dolphin conservation program.


reston,va: Are giant pandas really "bears?" If not, what are their closest non-panda relatives? How is this determined- through genetics?

Karen Baragona: The jury was out on this question for quite some time, but the current thinking, based on genetic analysis and other research results, is that the giant panda is one of the eight species that make up the bear family. It's the only bear species that is basically a vegetarian, though pandas will eat meat from time to time if they get the chance. I understand that Hsing Hsing at the National Zoo also ate blueberry muffins...


Arlington, VA: Hi. I am excited that the 2 pandas are coming... but haven't been too thrilled with the current dank Panda House at the National Zoo. The wildlife refuge in China where these two new pandas have been staying shows them sitting in trees & it seems quite a nice natural habitat. Wouldn't it suit them better to have part of their confines where they could climb trees in an outside habitat? I hate to think they'd be penned up for 10 years inside the current panda house. I wish it was made more natural for them... your thoughts??
Thank you

Karen Baragona: This is a question you might want to address directly to the panda team at the National Zoo. We do work closely with the National Zoo, though, and I recently had the chance to visit the renovated panda yard recently with some of the staff there. My understanding is that giving these young pandas the opportunity to climb trees is going to be a big priority for the zoo, so I guess you'll probably see some changes since your last visit.


Athens, Ohio: I am always amazed by the way pandas fascinate people. Do you have an explanation why people care so much about them?

Karen Baragona: I'm fascinated, too. Giant pandas have almost universal appeal, and not just to us -- they're considered a sort of national treasure by the people of China. For World Wildlife Fund, the giant panda symbolizes endangered species around the world, and they represent one of the most biologically rich and diverse temperate forest ecosystems in the world.


Alexandria Va: Does a Panda have thumbs ?
Can a Panda get rabies

Karen Baragona: Well, actually, pandas DO have "thumbs" of sorts -- this allows them to grasp bamboo quite adeptly. And pandas can get rabies -- in fact, ANY mammal can get rabies.


Washington, DC: Why is the infant survival rate for Panda's so low?

Karen Baragona: Infant survival rates are only low among CAPTIVE pandas. In the wild, reproductive rates are roughly comparable to some other bear species. If adequately protected, populations in the wild can be expected to stabilize and eventually grow.


Lanham, MD : Is there a possibility that the pandas will be donated to the zoo after the 10 year loan period expires.

Reneal

Karen Baragona: I don't think anyone can predict what will happen after ten years, but based on the current situation I'd say this is very unlikely. In order to get a panda loan from China, zoos pay about a million dollars a year to the Chinese government. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service policy, this money has to be invested in conservation efforts for wild pandas and their habitat. It's important that zoos that receive pandas from China contribute in this way to wild panda conservation for the entire time they have custody of the pandas.


Falls Church, VA: Why do pandas seem to have so much difficulty in reproducing in captivity? What can be done to increase their chances for producing off-spring?

washingtonpost.com: This just in: you can now see a Video of excerpts from this morning's news conference about the panda deal.

Karen Baragona: There have been some advances recently in China in captive breeding, but all in all humans are not especially good at this. I don't think anyone really knows why, though theories abound. In the wild, pandas select their mates based on criteria that humans don't understand too well. In captivity, pandas don't get to choose at all -- humans choose. Probably the answer is quite complex. The most important thing to keep in mind is that pandas in the wild do not exhibit any of the reproductive problems we see in their captive counterparts.


Alexandria, VA: What's the average life expectancy for Pandas in captivity? In the wild?

john

Karen Baragona: This is a good question and I'm sorry that I don't know the answer off the top of my head. I do know that the average age at which pandas reach sexual maturity is around 5 or 6 years of age, and they can have a cub about every 2 years. Hsing Hsing at the National Zoo was almost 30 when he died, if I'm remembering correctly.


Rockville, MD: We are eagerly awaiting a second round of pandemonium in the Washington area!!

I have two related questions. How many Giant Pandas are located in zoos in North America and other areas outside of China? Are there any plans to establish a cooperative program to breeding Giant Pandas at zoos in North American (e.g., exchange of males or frozen semen)?

Karen Baragona: Thanks for your question. I'm really not an expert on captive pandas -- this is the domain of the zoos. Currently there are 3 zoos in North America that have pandas -- Mexico City, San Diego, and Atlanta. National Zoo will get their pandas in December if all goes as planned. There have been some sort of theoretical discussions among North American zoos on the subject of breeding exchanges but I don't know of any concrete plans to do this.


Arlington, Va: We keep hearing that there are only 1,000 pandas left in the wild. If pandas live in the high rugged mountain forests of central China, how do scientists know that there are only 1,000 pandas? How do conservationists count the number of pandas in the wild?

Karen Baragona: This is a great question. The truth is, we don't know exactly how many pandas there are. Pandas are solitary, secretive animals that are rarely seen in the wild. I go to China every year for my job and visit panda reserves and I've never seen a wild panda. (But my boss has!) We generally say there may be AS FEW AS 1,000 pandas, and this is based on survey results from the mid-1980s. A new national survey is now underway and it's being conducted jointly by the Chinese government and World Wildlife Fund. Believe it or not, the best way to count pandas is by collecting fresh droppings. A survey team of about 40 researchers hikes in the mountains for a month or two at a time, enduring extremely difficult conditions, and records not just signs of pandas (i.e. droppings) but also data on other animal and plant (especially bamboo) species as well as information about habitat quality. The most important function of the survey is not really to get an exact headcount of pandas but to establish a baseline so that we can regularly monitor how pandas are doing in the future, determine how effective our conservation efforts are, and figure out how we should adapt them to deal with emerging problems & threats.


Portsmouth, NH: Hi Karen:
How can we be sure that the money donated from the National Zoo actually goes to support conservation programs in China?

Karen Baragona: It's not easy, believe me. World Wildlife Fund has an office in Beijing, and we try to help out the zoos wherever we can. Our staff is in the field most of the time and they know what's going on in many of China's 33 giant panda reserves. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) also has an office in Beijing, and the panda coordinator monitors the zoos' investments and serves as a liaison between China and the zoos in the U.S. My understanding is that National Zoo will hire their own coordinator to monitor their projects in China. It's going to be very, very important for the National Zoo to develop close relationships with the staff of the panda reserves where they're investing and really get to know what the conservation needs are and how they can help fulfill them. As long as they develop these close ties, they should be able to see with their own eyes how their money is being spent. So going to China regularly and getting out in the field -- even though this is time consuming and involves pretty rugged travel -- will be essential to monitoring their investments.


Sterling, VA: What are the most significant threats to pandas in the wild, and how can zoos help to address those threats?

Karen Baragona: The most serious threat to the giant panda's survival is habitat loss and fragmentation. China is a country with an enormous population -- over a billion people -- and forests are continually being destroyed by logging and cleared for agriculture. Poaching is also a problem, but often it's because pandas just happen to get trapped in snares set for other animals.

Zoos can help ensure the panda's survival by investing wisely in giant panda reserves -- providing the training, necessary infrastructure, and basic equipment that reserve staff need in order to protect pandas and their habitat effectively. They need to get to know what each reserve really needs and make sure those needs get covered. In some reserves, for instance, there may be a request for a new road so that staff can get around more easily. But a new road can open the reserve up to increased human encroachment -- it can provide easy access for poachers and illegal loggers. These things need to be thought through carefully, and zoos should consult as broadly as possible with panda conservation specialists within and outside China so they can learn from others' experience and expertise.


Burtonsville Md: Do Panda's have any natural predators? if so what are they?

Karen Baragona: Generally speaking, healthy adult pandas don't really have any natural predators. Panda cubs, though, could fall victim to predators. I have to admit that I'm not exactly sure which predators would prey on panda cubs, but I do know that snow leopards, clouded leopards, and golden cats, as well as a number of other carnivores, are found in some of the same forest areas where pandas live.


Herndon, Va: What do you think the panda's overall survival rate is going to be in the future; taking into account the shrinking natural habitat and low breeding rates in captivity?

Karen Baragona: The giant panda needs all the help it can get, that's for sure. But there have been a few encouraging developments lately. For one thing, in 1998, devastating floods in China made the government realize that they couldn't continue to allow logging to continue at the scale to which it had grown. A ban on logging is now in place throughout almost all of the giant panda's habitat. Also, there is a new government policy to allow many former agricultural areas to return to natural forest. This will take years but it's a great step in the right direction. And World Wildlife Fund continues to work with the Chinese government and U.S. zoos to make sure that conservation efforts are directed where they are needed most.


Arl, Va: I'm so excited that DC will once again be home to pandas. I hope that I'll see these two more than I did Hsing-Hsing and Ling Ling. It seems that every time I went to the zoo they were ill or inside. . .Is DC a decent climate/habitat for pandas? We are all hoping that these thrive.

Karen Baragona: Giant pandas live at high elevations in a climate that is almost perpetually cold & clammy -- at least it's been that way when I've been there! So Washington winters could be perfect for them. Like many of us, they're probably not crazy about the heat & humidity, but from what I understand, the National Zoo has some innovative exhibit design ideas that could give pandas some comfort even in the dog days of summer. You should probably try to find out more information directly from the National Zoo on that.


Alexandria, VA: I think it is great that we are making an effort to conserve pandas, but concern has been raised that the Wolong Reserve in China is not putting enough of its funds toward panda conservation in the wild. The reserve appears to be doing good work in regards to maintaining and breeding pandas at their facility. But successful breeding in captivity does not guarantee successful breeding in the wild. How can we be confident that our millions of dollars will be spent on the ultimate goal-panda conservation in the wild- and not just for captive studies and for maintenance of the park to attract visitors?

Karen Baragona: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service REQUIRES zoos to spend the vast majority of their million dollars a year on the conservation of WILD pandas and their habitat. They are responsible for approving the projects proposed by the Chinese side before zoos can send any money to China. If projects don't clearly fit the criteria of enhancing the survival of the giant panda in the wild, they are supposed to be rejected. Wolong Nature Reserve actually IS a reserve, though it's the captive breeding center that always gets all the attention. Wolong is one of the oldest, largest reserves in China, established in the early 60s and harboring somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 pandas. I hope that the media will start paying more attention to what's going on with conservation of wild pandas instead of focusing so fixedly on captive pandas. While captive pandas are interesting and valuable in their own right, so far they have very little connection to the wild population.


washington, dc: how much do pandas weigh?

Karen Baragona: They average around 190-240 lbs. But infants weigh only a few ounces -- they are about 1/900 of the size of their mother!


washingtonpost.com: Thanks, Karen, for joining us today. There has been a lot of interest in this topic -- where can people go to learn more and get involved?

Karen Baragona: Anyone who wants more information about giant pandas could start by visiting our Web site: www.worldwildlife.org. (Not wwf.com! You won't find any panda information there, I don't think...) I would also strongly encourage people to visit the Web sites of our partner zoos -- the San Diego Zoo and the National Zoo. The Web site of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will also have some useful information. Thanks for your questions, everyone!


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

 

 
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