Perils of the Great Pandas
by Judy Spiers
South Hill documentary filmmaker Becci Crowe presented her multi-media show, “The Giant Pandas of China,” at the Knutzen Family Theater in Federal Way, Sunday, and performed to an enthusiastic and packed crowd.
Several years back, I had first seen Becci’s work on wildlife preservation on PBS television. Coincidently, I’d always been curious about the art studio at the top of Graham Hill, which led me to stop in last fall and introduce myself to owner, Karen Lucas. That visit led to an invitation to the Annual Students’ Art Show from which I met Becci in person.
Having traveled six continents and 41 countries, Becci has gathered the stories of endangered animals and shared them everywhere through her multi-faceted artistic talents. Her show Sunday showcased her recent trip to China to study their imperiled panda bears.
According to Becci, only 1,600 Great Pandas remain in the world today – all in China – and they are at risk of extinction due to a loss of habitat.
With the encroachment of human population, these famously cuddly animals are confined to small areas in the high misty mountains where bamboo grows .
First arriving in the bustling city of Chengdu, China, Becci and her team embarked on a four-hour drive replete with urban bumper-to-bumper traffic and a gauntlet of rock slides on some rough country roads, before reaching the Wolong Preservation Center, a renown breeding facility for the Great Pandas.
“There are 60 adults and 16 babies at the center,” Becci reported, “and efforts are being made to increase their population through a captive breeding program.”
With her films, Becci helped viewers learn the nuances of these charming animals, including how agile and fast pandas are at walking up, and down, trees.
At one point, the crowd reacted with concern for a huge panda high off the ground that plunked down a branch not much bigger than a man’s thumb. That was a little disconcerting considering that males can weigh upward of 300 pounds.
“They’re not afraid of heights at all,” Becci assured the crowd.
In her slide show, Crowe displayed pandas in utterly precarious of positions perching high up in trees.
“They are tree huggers,” she said.
The original tree hugger, I thought to myself.
She filmed one panda as it scooted around in the fork of some branches to find a comfortable position and then, like someone put in a trance, quickly slumped into a doze. Then surprisingly, it looked down on the film crew and waved, evoking a big laugh from the audience.
“Researchers have identified eleven different panda vocalizations,” Crowe reported.
She gave the audience a sense of being in the pandas’ world by asking the crowd to close their eyes and imagine they were high in the mountains. As everyone relaxed, she played the sounds that pandas utter.
I tried to pick them out: they whiffed, and huffed, panted and puffed, snorted, and made, I thought, a neighing sound. They even barked!
While the Wolong Preserve is located in the normal habitat for pandas, the breeding program requires that their bears be confined. Natural hillsides have been carved away and concrete walls erected so the young pandas likely don’t even know that they are being contained.
Another reason for the secure nature of the preserve is that adult pandas are territorial and must be kept apart to assure their safety. In fact, in the wild pandas live solitary lives and will fight to preserve their territories.
As a result, copious amounts of panda food must be trucked into the preserve daily. The crowd responded with amazement at the photo showing how high the trucks were stacked with bamboo.
“Bamboo represents 99% of a panda’s diet,” Crowe reported. “It is low in nutritional food value so the bears spend their entire day eating.”
The average panda eats about 50 pounds of bamboo a day, which means in the wild they need a large area to range.
Becci showed a photograph of young pandas virtually covered with a shipment of bamboo and she titles it, “Bamboo Heaven.”
As “Bamboo Heaven” illustrated, pandas use both hands to eat. To get to the tender center of the bamboo, they must first peal away the outside skin, which is awkward for the babies to do.
“Their hand-eye coordination is lacking, and like children, they love to play with their food,” Becci added.
Another part of the pandas’ daily food regimen are freshly made biscuits made of grains, bamboo, and fruit, which the pandas like very much.
The Preserve has a famous resident, a panda named Hua Mei, which translates as “China-U.S,” and she was the first Great Panda to be born in the U.S, in 1999 at the San Diego Zoo.
All pandas held in zoos, world-wide, are on loan from China with the agreement that researchers will study them to find solutions for their preservation.
“They came from China, are owned by China, and returned to China at maturity,” Crowe reported.
However, the issue of preservation is quite challenging.
Females usually have one cub and occasionally two. Because of the competition for food in the wild, the mother will only care for one, leaving the other to die. This presents a problem when twins are born in a captive breeding program, but one researcher has found a solution called “twin swapping.”
In this procedure, one twin is taken to an incubator while the mother takes care of the other. The twins are then switched at regular intervals which gives them both a 95% survival rate.
Watching the babies play, the crowd was enchanted. The cubs wrestled, pounced, teamed up on one another, swiped bamboo, and then headed up a sturdy platform of thick poles to hang out and nap. When naptime was over, they started all over again.
“I had an opportunity to hold a 50-pound panda baby while I was there,” Becci shared.
But, it was perfectly clear that the baby wasn’t into the idea of sitting still on Becci’s lap. It wormed and squiggled and even played dead while Becci moved fast to keep her face and hands out of the way of those sharp little claws.
Becci also told us about the huge earthquake that hit the Panda Preserve and the surrounding area in May of 2008, which killed 90,000 people and left 400,000 injured.
The epicenter was only seven miles from Wolong, and the devastation – and resulting deprivation – was enormous. One adult panda in containment was crushed, along with a conservation center destroyed. Five employees were also killed.
“There was no food for people, and no bamboo for the pandas,” Crowe said.
Even so, workers put the care of the traumatized pandas ahead of themselves. When the rescue came, the pandas were lifted out through the compound’s wrecked roof and relocated to temporary quarters.
A new Wolong Preservation Center is being built twelve miles away in a more geologically stable area.
“Although bamboo forests were destroyed and several pandas died, the pregnant pandas that were moved held their pregnancies and delivered healthy cubs in the Fall,” Becci told a relieved audience.
Nevertheless, the future for these adorable creatures is dire, as Crowe reported that only 320 Great Pandas are living in captivity today, with the majority of them in China.
Further, Great Pandas raised in captivity are unable to survive upon release to the wild. Captive-bred pandas do not know to fight or protect themselves, so they lose in the constant struggle to maintain a sufficient bamboo habitat. Crowe told the story of one male panda successfully raised in captivity that died from wounds suffered in a fight over territory.
The key question is preserving habitat. Plus, what can be done to sustain the bamboo forests that die every 20 years as part of their natural life cycle? How can corridors be provided between areas where pandas live so they can find food and mates, and rebuff the population pressures along with surviving the effects of disastrous earthquakes? How can workers teach juvenile pandas the skills they need to survive when released?
“One researcher came up with a potential solution,” Crowe announced. “In China, they are taking females into the natural habitat, fencing it and putting GPS collars on them so birthing and raising of young takes place in the wild. If some circumstance requires human contact, workers put on panda costumes so the babies won’t imprint on humans or develop human associations. Under this system there will be a new generation of pandas in four to five years that can be reintroduced into the wild,” Crowe concluded.
Becci Crowe will be on television this week, as KBTC – Channel 12 – will air “Sketches of the Wild,” on their wildlife show, “Full Focus.” The broadcast will chronicle some of her journeys to Africa, Antarctica and China. Wednesday, April 13th, at 6:30 pm.
© 2011 Judy Spiers
All photographs courtesy of Becci Crowe.