This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.
2003 First Paper
The Giant Panda is a creature of mystery. Adults and children alike appreciate it for its cute, fuzzy, lovable qualities, but it is an animal that is in desperate need of immediate attention. Scientists know the basics: how and what they eat, where and how they live, and how they reproduce. The fact remains, however, that this universally loved national symbol of China is facing the threat of extinction. What accounts for this fact and what can be or is being done to protect the panda from such a fate? This paper will discuss the characteristics and lifestyle of the panda as well as issues and questions that arise as a result of the threat of their extinction.
Pandas have made their homes in China for centuries; but because of increased development and forest clearing in the lowlands, they have been forced further and further into the mountain ranges over the years ((1)). They inhabit damp forests in those mountains that border on land that farmers increasingly wish to use ((6)). These forests have a dense understory of bamboo and are characterized by heavy rains and dense mist ((1)).
One problem facing pandas is their seeming difficulty in mating successfully. Females have a low frequency of ovulation (once a year in the spring) and the males demonstrate an infamous apathy toward females in heat ((2)). When mating is successful, the female giant panda will give birth, after 96 to 160 days, to a cub that is one-nine hundredth the size of her ((1)). Cubs open their eyes after six to eight weeks, nurse for about nine months, and stay with their mothers for up to three years before venturing out on their own ((1)).
Giant Pandas enjoy a simple lifestyle of sleeping, looking for food, and eating. The monotonous activity seems to be largely due to the amount of food that they must consume: twenty to forty pounds of bamboo daily ((6)). Pandas have inefficient digestive systems, and must therefore spend more than ten hours a day eating the amount of food needed for necessary nutrients ((1)). While their dental structures have adapted to the bamboo diet their digestive systems remain closer to those of carnivores ((6)). This results in a low percentage of food digestion in comparison to the amount that it actually ingests ((6)).
The Giant Panda is currently threatened in a number of ways. The first threats are to their food sources. The Bamboo Rat is a minor, but existent problem that feeds on bamboo roots, killing plants on an individual level ((6)). Bamboo also undergoes phases of growing and then dying as part of the renewal cycle ((7)). This process is not a problem in itself, except for the fact that whereas the pandas might move to a different location to feed, they are running out of places to move because of the expansions of farmland and increased forest clearing ((7)).
The greatest threat of all to the Giant Panda is man. The abovementioned land clearing for farms, residential and commercial areas coupled with prowling poachers are the two most serious threats to the panda and its habitat ((3)). Efforts to set up reserves for the pandas have sparked conflicts with locals. When a reserve is established, people are often not compensated for the loss of land that they have used for years, and they are tempted to continue to use the land illegally ((3)). Their continued use of the land defeats the whole purpose of having a reserve.
China must somehow find a balance between conservation and development. The threat of the Giant Panda's extinction is a serious reality. It is estimated that there are about one thousand left in the wild; another one hundred forty live in zoos and breeding centers in China and a few other countries ((1)). Breeding pandas in captivity has proven to be a difficult task ((7)). Although it is a help to be able to observe these private animals in order to perhaps better understand how we can help them in the wild, the most pressing concern is that their habitats in the wild be saved and sustained.
The idea of cloning has arisen as one of China's desperate attempts to save the Giant Panda ((5)). Cloning raises some serious questions and concerns on both my part and the part of many experts. A small group of experts feel that the process of artificial insemination and raising pandas in the zoo for future release in the wild is not working well enough or fast enough ((4)). In 2002, China predicted that they would have their first cloned panda in the next two years ((8)). Scientists successfully placed a panda embryo in the uterus of a cat, but an article from 2003 stated that the cat died soon after ((5), (8)). Scientists have been forced to turn to surrogate mothers of different species because they have found pandas to have difficulties carrying young to term ((8)). Cloning is a touchy ethical issue, and I would hope that the experimentation would be kept to a minimum as we take the giving and taking of life into our own hands. I do not feel that enough is understood at this stage about cloning to attempt to save an entire species using this method.
There is a group of scientists who are very optimistic about the possibilities that may accompany cloning, but there are many, including myself, who are concerned that the focus of saving the Giant Panda species should be directed elsewhere. The most serious threats to their extinction, the destruction of their habitat, must be addressed. Experts opposed to cloning insist that the only way to guarantee the species' survival is if we not only solve the problem of the diminishing panda population, but also and more importantly, to find ways to guarantee the preservation of their environment by directing more attention to saving forests ((5)).
Also remember the problems within a species when it is in danger of becoming extinct. One finds a lack of diversity within the species, a lack that cloning simply could not return to the species. Animals rely on hereditary diversity in order to continue ((9)). This lack of diversity cannot be improved by the technology of cloning, even hetero-cloning, because it can only copy an already existing animal ((9)).
Another factor to consider is the question of how much we should involve ourselves in continuing any species. How much of their current endangered status is due to human interference and how much is due to the natural order of things? Many, many species have come and gone in the biological history of our world. It is true that humans are becoming more and more of an interference, but we have seen species run their courses throughout the centuries. I am not saying that I would like to see the panda population disappear by any stretch of the imagination, but I would be interested to hear what others have to say about our place in or perhaps interference with something like a "natural order."
The bottom line of all this talk of conservation is that we should concern ourselves with the preservation of the habitat of the Giant Panda. The results of other attempts at continuing the species, such as cloning, can only be temporary. Yes, we would maintain at least a small number of the species that could be seen on display in captivity, but we would not be addressing the real issue. Cloning cannot solve any of the problems that pandas face in the wild ((7)). By working to conserve their habitat, we can give the panda the best opportunity to continue on its own, apart from our direct intervention with the species itself.
1)Smithsonian National Zoological Park, about Giant Pandas
2)Giant Panda News and Events, Giant Panda in the News
3)WWF Endangered Species, Panda conservation
4)WWF, Future Outlook of Giant Panda
5)CBS news, Chinese to clone pandas?
6)Everything you need to know about the Giant Panda, It's all here
7)China.org, Conservation programs for pandas
8)Space daily, Discusses warnings about replication
through a lens, Experts who worry about cloning say why
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