Panda at the Chengdu Panda Base, Sichuan, China
Panda at the Chengdu Panda Base, Sichuan, China. Credit: Stephen Bugno (BohemianTraveler)/Flickr

July 4th marked the beginning of Panda Awareness Week (PAW) when 108 people dressed in panda suits and took London by storm by performing a choreographed tai-chi dance in the middle of Trafalgar Square. PAW was created by the Chengdu Panda Base, a nonprofit organization that currently houses 108 pandas and engages in wildlife research, captive breeding, conservation education and educational tourism in the capital of Southwest China’s Sichuan Province. The purpose of the week is to increase awareness and support for pandas, one of the world’s most endangered species. With the largest captive-breeding panda population in the world, this week, the 25-year-old Chengdu announced a goal to increase its panda total to 150 in the next 10 years.

The importance of bringing awareness to the plight of giant pandas cannot be overemphasized, as the number of giant pandas across the world has diminished at an astounding rate over the years. Fewer than 1,600 giant pandas, which are native to southwest China, remain in the wild. Habitat loss and fragmentation continue to be the biggest factors in the species decline, but a growing Chinese population and land lost to road and railroad construction outside of protected areas are also serious problems.

Giant pandas eating bamboo at the Chengdu Panda Base, Sichuan, China
Giant pandas eating bamboo at the Chengdu Panda Base, Sichuan, China. Credit: Hyjk2000/Wikimedia Commons

In the wild, pandas survive in cold, damp coniferous forests that are best suited for bamboo’s survival, as it makes up 99 percent of giant panda’s diets. Much of a panda’s life in spent in these generally high, mountainous regions, usually from 8,500 to 11,500 meters above sea level. The forests that contain the giant panda’s natural habitat are some of the most biologically rich temperate areas on Earth. Because of development in rapidly growing China, in recent years, pandas have been left confined to narrow belts of bamboo in lower river valleys and mountain slopes, where they are forced to compete with farmers for land. But habitat loss isn’t the only impediment to their survival.

One serious obstacle for repopulating the endangered species is that captive breeding success rates — already quite low — are declining. At Chengdu Panda Base, the staff is engaging in extraordinary efforts to aid panda populations by creating the most natural environment possible for giant pandas to breed and live. This habitat that’s housed on conservation land combines natural scenery and man-made landscapes to provide the endangered pandas with the best home possible. Chengdu is a high ideal in the world of captive panda breeding. Over the 25 years of its existence, the base’s research and expertise have aided in the birth of 124 panda cubs, some of which have been loaned to zoos all over the world. However, the rest of the world isn’t so successful.

Recent studies show that of 160 giant pandas in North American zoos, 83 percent are not meeting breeding targets. Many conservationists are requesting that the money once put into breeding efforts at zoos and other captivities be redirected to preserving the panda’s wild habitats, where breeding is fairly consistent. Researchers today are teetering between the decision to channel money towards preserving natural habitats or keeping the efforts in conservations and zoos. It is a hard decision to make knowing that captive breeding is struggling, while also being aware that human development is gradually stealing away these species’ natural habitats.

There is good news, though. In the spirit of PAW, a baby giant panda was born on Thursday at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo for the first time in 24 years. And, hopefully, PAW will help spread awareness about the plight of the panda and increase efforts to aid these magnificent mammals.