Xiao Bai is usually the second one to come forward when I enter her enclosure. I smile each time I see her, the way one does when seeing an old friend or a relative coming down the road, but she always seems a little reluctant when she approaches me. She is not entirely certain of who I am, because unlike my evolutionary ancestors that gave up on using scent as a form of recognition thousands of years ago, she has evolved to rely on olfaction (smell) even more so. One sniff，two sniffs, she is reassured it is me and relaxes. While I can quickly distinguish her by her white face, it is her keen sense of smell that she uses to identify me. Now that we have made our greetings it is time to get started. I ask her to stand, good, I ask her to rest both her front paws on my hand, great, I put my hand on her back to straighten her and then firmly touch her abdomen, perfect. To the observing public we may look like, a father and daughter having private moment or perhaps we are a couple practicing an exotic dance, however there is more to this. We are working together to save her species from extinction.
Xiao Bai is one of 103 red pandas that live at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breed-Wing, and she is very special to me. I began working with her when she was a cub of just six months, and have spent the last year using positive reinforcement to train her so that she can be handled comfortably and safely, both for her sake and mine. While red pandas appear cute and harmless, they are more than capable of defending themselves. Their teeth and jaws have evolved to be incredibly strong for tearing and chewing bamboo leaves while they have extra sharp claws for climbing. Make no mistake, even though we have a good working relationship I can only touch her with her permission or she will give me a special scar by which to remember my transgression! But why should I touch her in the first place? She is a wild animal and we should respectfully keep our distance, right? Well, unfortunately, red pandas have an abnormally high cub mortality rate in captivity and in order to understand why this occurs, we need to manage them very closely. An individual, like Xiao Bai, conditioned to be touched and examined is invaluable for conducting research on gestation and cub rearing. Our little dance, while entertaining, is in reality training for us to perform ultrasound imaging on her abdomen to see if she is pregnant. Determining early on if a female is pregnant and being able to monitor the stages of pregnancy will greatly improve our knowledge and ability to better manage pandas in captivity. Although they have been kept in zoos for some time now, little is actually known about gestation in red pandas. In the case of Xiao Bai, this will be her first a species. It is now pregnancy. Understanding how her body changes are the only surviving as a first time mother and what her needs are will ancient family within the help us make strides in conserving this remarkably unique species.
Just how unique is the red panda? This has been a question that has plagued scientists for decades. For some time, a debate raged amongst taxonomists as to which family to place red pandas. Only quite recently, with the advent of DNA analysis have scientists been able to determine how to classify them as a species. It is now believed that red pandas are the only surviving members of a distinct and ancient family within the Order Carnivora, called Ailuridae. The Ailurids were comprised of several species of red panda-like animals which were once found throughout Europe, Asia, and North America. However, of these animals it was only the red panda that managed to survive the ice age. So, although they share the name “panda, in actuality they are only distantly related to giant pandas, which are members of Ursidae, the bear family. While the classification of red pandas has been an interesting debate amongst academics in lecture halls, it has real world significance. If the red panda goes extinct because they are the only surviving species of the family Ailuridae, this entire family line and the role they play in the environment will be lost forever.
While currently listed as threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the actual count of red pandas in the wild is unknown. Found only in mountainous areas surrounding the Himalayans, this predominantly arboreal mammal has been difficult to census and observe in the wild. While protected by law, red pandas suffer from hunting for their colorful fur, for the zoo trade, and are currently under tremendous pressure from habitat loss. Also, like their larger cousin the giant panda, because they prefer higher altitudes, cooler temperatures, and have a strict bamboo diet, they are particularly vulnerable to climate change and the effects of global warming. Here at the Chengdu Panda Base we have the largest captive population of red pandas and it is our mission to safeguard this species from extinction with the goal to one day release them back into the wild. To accomplish this goal, it is imperative that we learn as much about this elusive animal as possible while finding ways to protect their habitat.
It was early winter when, while training Xiao Bai, the unexpected happened. She lost her balance, but instead of letting her tumble to the ground, I caught her from behind and gently lowered her down. Seizing upon the moment, I immediately rewarded her for this. Clever as she is, she quickly understood my intention. With her lying on her back in this fashion, I had perfect access to her abdomen and was able to move her in a more comfortable position for an ultrasound. In this new position our veterinarian was able to get nearly perfect images. Soon the breeding season will begin and Xiao Bai will have her first opportunity to mate. This will be the true test of our bond. As her pregnancy progresses she will become more and more sensitive and less responsive to trainings but this is the most crucial time for our research. I am hopeful that the rapport Xiao Bai and I have built will endure through her pregnancy and that we can continue, working as a team, on our efforts to save her species.