Biomedical Survey of Giant Pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) in Captivity in China: 1998-2000
IAAAM 2000
Donald L. Janssen1, DVM, DACZM; Zhang Anju2; Zhang Hemin3; Wang Menghu4; David Wildt5, PhD; Susie Ellis6, PhD; Mabel Lam1; He Gangxin2; Zhong Ying7; Zhang Jingguo7; JoGayle Howard8, DVM, PhD; Mark Edwards1, PhD; R. Eric Miller9, DVM, DACZM; Li Guanghan10; Yu Jianqui10; Zhang Zhihe10; Tang Chunxiang3; Zhang Guiquan3; Bruce Rideout1, DVM, PhD, DACVP; Richard J. Montali8, DVM, DACZM, ACVP; Meg Sutherland-Smith1, DVM; Lee Young1, DVM; Lyndsay Phillips11, DVM, DACZM
1Zoological Society of San Diego, San Diego, CA, USA; 2Chinese Technique Committee of Giant Panda Breeding, Chengdu, Sichuan, PRC; 3Chinese Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda, Wolong, Sichuan, PRC; 4Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens, Beijing, PRC; 5National Zoological Park Conservation and Research Center, Front Royal, VA, USA; 6Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, Strasburg, VA, USA; 7Beijing Zoo, Beijing, PRC; 8Smithsonian National Zoological Park, Washington, DC, USA; 9Saint Louis Zoo, St. Louis, MO, USA; 10Chengdu Zoo and Base, Chengdu, PRC; 11University of California, Davis, CA, USA

Abstract

The status of giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) in nature is precarious, largely because of habitat fragmentation and subsequent isolation of small populations. Because of this, giant pandas in captivity play an important role: 1) as a hedge against catastrophic losses in the wild; 2) as a resource for biologic studies impossible to conduct in nature; and 3) for educating and provoking concern by the public about the giant panda's endangered status.1

In China, there is a great deal of interest in giant pandas living in the mountains of Sichuan, Gansu and Shanxi Provinces. However, there also is concern about the approximately 120 giant pandas housed in breeding facilities and zoos throughout China. Some of these captive animals are under the authority of the State Forestry Administration (SFA) and are housed within the Wolong Nature Reserve. Others are managed under the Ministry of Construction's (MoC) Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens (CAZG).

There is consensus within China that all giant pandas held in captivity should be genetically managed. In 1996, the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group (CBSG) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) World Conservation Union's Species Survival Commission was invited to help develop a genetic management plan for giant pandas held by zoos.2 As a first step, managers suggested that it was important to assess the health of the captive population. Determining which animals were healthy and reproductively fit would contribute to the development of a more effective breeding program. Additionally, animals with medical problems could be identified for further clinical diagnostic work and treatment. Biologic materials could be harvested that would eventually allow multi-faceted genetic studies including determining relatedness among individuals and establishing paternity. Finally, a "hands-on" examination would allow each animal to be identified both by tattoo and by electronic transponder, thereby helping avoid inappropriate pairings that could result in inbreeding.

The CBSG was invited to help organize a national Biomedical Survey of the giant panda. Phase I was conducted in March 1998, Phase II in February and March of 1999, and finally Phase III in February and March 2000. During those three phases, 61 pandas from four institutions were examined and evaluated (Table 1). Each giant panda received an extensive, multi-disciplinary biomedical evaluation by Chinese scientists and mangers (from SFA and CAZG) and the CBSG team. The examinations were consistent in method each year. Each evaluation included a behavioral questionnaire for the keepers, review of the reproductive history, pedigree analysis, diet analysis, and an extensive examination under anesthesia. The examination included collection of physiologic data using portable monitoring equipment, body weight, body measurements, blood hematology and biochemistry analysis, banking samples for future genetics analysis, insertion of transponder microchip, tattoo with studbook number, physical examination, and ultrasound examination focusing on the abdomen and reproductive tract. Mature males were electroejaculated and sperm were evaluated and subjected to cryopreservation studies. Females had vaginal swabs taken for cytologic evaluation.

All data for each giant panda were recorded on forms according to respective disciplines (anesthesia, medical, reproduction, behavior, nutrition, and pathology) and in a centralized database. Succinct summations for each animal were prepared for the purpose of classifying each individual's health/reproductive potential. Samples were analyzed immediately, if possible, and stored on-site. All biomaterials remained in China. The data and integrated analyses were discussed with the CBSG and Chinese teams in an annual technical meeting following the evaluations. Following consensus on findings and interpretation, all data, including management recommendations, were provided to all participants.

Significant medical and management concerns found in the captive population of giant pandas in China in this survey included: 1) animals with stunted development, 2) nutritional problems in sub-adults, 3) dental disease relating to stunted development, 4) presence of abdominal fluid in several animals of different age classes, 5) localized and generalized Demodex sp. mite infestations, 6) ambiguous paternity due to mixed multiple artificial insemination and natural matings, 7) multiple cases of testicular hypoplasia or atrophy, 8) genetic over-representation of many individuals, 9) uterine and cervical infection, and 10) ascarid parasite infections in juveniles.

This database provides an invaluable source of information that can facilitate additional steps for developing a self-sustaining, healthy population of giant pandas for the long-term. Furthermore, this study illustrates the importance of developing cross-cultural scientific partnerships in addressing complex biologic issues affecting the self-sustainability of an endangered species population.

Acknowledgments

The authors thank the following individuals for their significant contributions to this program: Zhong Wei, Li Desheng, Hu Daming, Wei Rongping; Xie Zhong, Wang Qiang, Dr. Ray Wack, Kim Williams, RVT, Jeff Turnage, RVT, and Sandi Skrobot, RVT. We also thank the following institutions for their major support: Chengdu Zoo and Research Base, Chinese Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda at Wolong, Beijing Zoo, Chongqing Zoo, Zoological Society of San Diego, Smithsonian National Zoological Park, Giant Panda Foundation, Saint Louis Zoo, Columbus Zoo, and the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group.

Table 1. Summary of breeding prospects for 61 giant pandas assessed during the 3-yr biomedical survey.

Sex ratios are expressed as A.B where A represents the number of males and B represents the number of females. Numbers in parentheses represent totals of both sexes. Numbers in brackets exclude those animals that had been evaluated in a previous year.

Location

Animal
Count

Prime

Potential

Questionable

Poor

Not
classified

1998 Survey

Chengdu Zoo

4.9

2.2

1.4

0.1

1.2

 

Beijing Zoo

2.3

1.2

0.1

1.0

   

1998 Totals

6.12 (18)

3.4

1.5

1.1

1.2

 

1999 Survey

Chongqing Zoo

0.3

0.2

 

0.1

   

Chengdu Zoo

4.5 [2.5]

2.3 [0.3]

2.2

     

Beijing Zoo

2.2

 

0.1

 

0.1

2.0

Wolong Reserve

5.6

1.2

4.2

0.2

   

1999 Totals

11.16 (27)

3.7 [1.7]

6.5

0.3

0.1

2.0

2000 Survey

Wolong Reserve

9.13 (22)

5.4 [5.3]

3.5

1.3 [1.0]

0.1

 

Total Procedures

26.41 (67)

11.15

10.15

2.7

1.4

2.0

Three-year totala

24.37 (61)

9.14

10.15

2.4

1.4

2.0

a. Three-year total excludes the counts of two males that were re-evaluated in 1999 and four females that were re-evaluated in 2000.

References

1.  Mainka S, X Qiu. 1992. Preparing for the re-introduction of giant pandas. Proc. Am. Assoc. Zoo Vet. and Am. Assoc. Wildl. Vet. 1992: 65-69.

2.  Conservation Breeding Specialist Group. 1996. Giant panda captive management planning workshop. Chengdu, China. Pp. 266.

Speaker Information
(click the speaker's name to view other papers and abstracts submitted by this speaker)

Donald L. Janssen
Zoological Society of San Diego
San Diego, CA, USA


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