We have been losing nature’s balance and its ability to sustain life on our planet. The threat to our wildlife has become more pronounced owing to human activities and changes in the climate over the past few years. Many species of animals and plants are on the brink of extinction as their habitats continue to be destroyed. It, thus, becomes imperative for us to conserve the vulnerable species either in captivity or in the wild by protecting their habitat, making food sources available to them and discouraging overexploitation and banning unethical activities such as poaching. We have had some success in conserving some of such previously endangered species like Giant Panda bears of China. With the constant efforts of scientists and veterinarians from China and America, once declining population of Giant Panda has been recovering in the last few years. In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature upgraded the status of these adorable creatures from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’. While this is good news for the animals however transitioning them to their wild habitat still remains a challenge.
The national symbol of China, the Giant Panda bears, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, or Xiangmao as called in Chinese — which means ‘bear that looks like a cat’ — struggled to sustain themselves due to poaching, overexploitation and deforestation in the 80s and were declared ‘endangered’ by IUCN in 1990. Deforestation in the temperate forests in mountains of south-west China resulted in the loss of their habitat and food sources which exclusively comprised of bamboo plants which they have been chewing on for millions of years. As a result, their population dwindled over the years. However, the conservation efforts in the last two decades have borne some sweet fruits and from 1000 in the 1970s to 1864 in the year 2015 — the species has seen its population rebounding after years of decline. The policies to ban indiscriminate logging, to regulate deforestation and control poaching with the enactment of the Wildlife Protection Act (1988), have contributed to their growing number.
But this may not be enough. Most of them have become extremely dependant on humans for their survival. Their lives are easier in captivity where their breeding and feeding has been facilitated by humans. In the wild, they are dependent on bamboo plants for 99 per cent of their diet. Changes in the climate have prompted an upward shift of bamboo plants which has been making them inaccessible to pandas in the wild. Further, their breeding activities are dismal: a female panda is receptive for mating for just three days of a year, making it almost impossible for the already sparse population of pandas to find each other to mate during that space of time! Even if everything goes fine and they mate, the survival of the cub or cubs of the pandas is slim as they are born tiny and hardly weigh more than a stick of butter, and are dependent on their mothers for next 3 years!
Such exclusivity of food and narrow breeding period with highly vulnerable offsprings have made their lives in the wild without the deliberate intervention of humans quite difficult. For these elusive and solitary bears, the road ahead would not be anything less than challenging.