Pandanomics is a grey area, but to us the value of giant pandas is black and white


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Funi and Wang Wang in December, 2011. The gian pandas’ stay at Adelaide Zoo depends on federal funding to pay China about A$1 million a year.
Dave Mattner/Adelaide Zoo

Jillian Ryan, CSIRO and Carla Litchfield, University of South Australia

Wang Wang and Funi came to Australia from China a decade ago. Their relationship is best described as complicated. Despite considerable medical assistance, they have never managed to produce offspring. It has put a big question mark over whether they will be permitted to remain in Australia.

The fate of the two giant pandas may now depend on the outcome of the federal election. Keeping the couple at Adelaide Zoo includes paying about A$1 million a year to the Chinese government. The federal Labor Party has promised it will pay that bill for another five years. The Coalition’s position remains unclear.

It’s just another chapter in the story of an iconic species where politics, economics and international diplomacy often eclipse conservation considerations.

Captive breeding program

China currently has pandas on loan (or hire) to 26 zoos in 18 countries. The most recent zoo to join the select list was Ähtäri, Finland, which welcomed two pandas on a 15-year loan in 2018. Denmark’s Copenhagen Zoo is eagerly awaiting two pandas due to arrive in April.


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Officially it’s all part of a captive breeding program to help save the species from extinction. Though their conservation status is no longer “endangered” (improving to “vulnerable” in 2016), there are still just 500 to 1,000 adult pandas left in the wild, in six isolated mountain ranges in south-central China.

The overseas placements augment China’s own 67 reserves dedicated to panda conservation. Any cubs born overseas are the property of China and typically return to China to continue the captive breeding program.

But the number of zoo births has been quite low. As the Smithsonian Institution’s “panda guy” Bill McShea has pointed out, pandas in the wild have fewer problems mating or breeding: “In the wild, aggregations of male pandas form along ridge tops in the spring, and a stream of visiting females in heat keeps the mating activity intense.”

Zoos can’t mimic these conditions. Since giant pandas are solitary animals, they are housed separately except for the few days of the year when the female is ready to mate. Because there is no mate choice in captivity, natural mating is rare. Most captive births are the result of IVF treatments.

In 2015 panda fans got to watch Mei Xiang at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo give birth via panda cam. Mei Xiang was aged 17 years at the time. She had been artificially inseminated with sperm from two male pandas, and gave birth to two cubs.

Trade considerations

This is not to say overseas zoo placements have no conservation value. But other strategic aims, such as improving China’s public image and consolidating trade relationships, loom large.

For example, the new panda enclosure at Berlin’s Tierpark zoo was opened just ahead of the 2017 G20 summit in Hamburg. The opening was attended by German chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese president Xi Jingping. The event was intrepreted as a signal of China’s endorsement of Germany as a competitor to the United States for leadership of the western world.

China’s 2012 announcement that it would send four pandas to Canada’s Toronto and Calgary zoos was linked to successful trade talks, particularly over a Foreign Investment Protection Agreement after almost 20 years of negotiation.

Edinburgh Zoo’s receipt of two pandas in 2011 was linked to trade deals worth billions of dollars.

As for the panda loan to Adelaide Zoo, it was announced by Chinese president Hu Jintao at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Sydney in 2007. On the same day Australian prime minister John Howard and President Hu also announced plans for a yearly “security dialogue”.

Panda diplomacy

Panda diplomacy is believed to date back to the 7th century, when the Empress Wu Zeitan sent a pair as a gift to Japan. In the 20th century Mao Zedong embraced the strategy, gifting pandas to fellow-travelling communist nations. When Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, Deng Xiaoping presented him with two pandas.

Since then the recipients have been well and truly weighted towards wealthy capitalist nations. There are two reasons for this.

First, China uses the pandas to improve its image and deepen relationships with nations able to supply it with valuable resources and technology. This has been aptly described as an exercise in “soft cuddly power”.

Second, since the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, China has used panda loans to pay for local conservation efforts, mend damaged panda conservation facilities and conduct giant panda research.

Financial strings attached

For recipient zoos keeping pandas is an expensive business.

Consider Adelaide Zoo’s costs even with the federal government covering the pandas’ A$1 million annual rental fee. From the outset, the zoo went heavily into debt to build a specialist panda enclosure (at a cost of about A$8 million).

Wang Wang in his enclosure at Adelaide Zoo in 2009. He and companion Funi have largely lived separate lives over the past decade.
Bryan Charlton/Zoos South Australia

Looking after each panda also costs many hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Pandas are the most expensive animal to keep in a zoo, costing about five times as much as an elephant.

Food alone is a logistical headache. Giant pandas are not biologically herbivores but for some reason they developed a taste for bamboo about 6,000 years ago and stopped eating a varied diet, including meat. Bamboo, however, is low in nutrients and difficult to digest, which means pandas have to eat a lot and then rest. Each day an adult panda can munch through about 12 kilograms of fresh bamboo – and because they’re fussy eaters, they need to be given more than double that amount.

All of this means a panda must be treated like a business proposition. Will there be a return on investment? Will their cost be justified by the extra visitors they draw to the zoo?

Adelaide Zoo had high expectations that were quickly dashed. Like other zoos, there was a large initial spike in zoo visits, but by 2010 visitor numbers had returned to pre-panda levels. It was clear Funi and Wang Wang would not add A$600 million to the South Australian economy over a decade as predicted. In their honeymoon year, research suggests, they brought in just A$28 million. Adding a baby panda would improve their attraction value considerably.

Beyond financial value

It’s therefore easy to see why some some call pandas white elephants.

But let’s not overlook the important contribution the panda diaspora has made to pandas moving off the “endangered” list. Part of this is due to the loan fees paid to China. The money has funded panda conservation research and projects at Bifengxia and Wolong, in China’s Sichuan province.

There is also value in Australian zoo keepers, veterinarians and scientists being part of a global knowledge network.

We still know so little about panda behaviour and the environmental effects that endanger them. We have made a small contribution with our own research into strategies to reduce stress in captive giant pandas. If Funi and Wang Wang remain in Adelaide, the zoo has the potential to provide for further valuable insights.

As scientists who care about animals and animal welfare, we believe it is important to also remember Funi and Wang Wang have helped connect hundreds of thousands of children and adults alike to nature.

These two giant pandas have their own personalities and close bonds with people who care for them everyday. Nature is not just an economic commodity but vital for our survival. If you have not yet visited Funi and Wang Wang, take the opportunity while you can.The Conversation

Jillian Ryan, Post-doctoral Research Fellow, CSIRO and Carla Litchfield, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, Social Work and Social Policy, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Indigenous ranger programs are working in Queensland – they should be expanded


Emilie Ens, Macquarie University and Alana Grech, James Cook University

Indigenous ranger programs are a rare good news story of a government initiative that delivers outstanding social, economic, cultural and environmental outcomes. Now, new data have revealed that many Queenslanders would like to see these programs expanded.

Recent polling shows that 80% of Queenslanders, including 70% of One Nation voters, support Indigenous land and sea management, while 88% of Queenslanders support a proposal to create 200 new ranger jobs over the next ten years.


Read more: Friday essay: caring for country and telling its stories


The 2017 Queensland budget pledged 25 new Indigenous ranger jobs over the next three years. That would bring the total number of state government-supported ranger positions to 101. As our research below shows, there should be much more support to bring Queensland Indigenous ranger numbers into line with other big states.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities see these programs as a cornerstone of cultural maintenance and management of their ancestral estates. There is a strong case for the program to be dramatically expanded in Queensland and beyond.

Why do Queenslanders support more Indigenous ranger jobs?

Indigenous Natural Cultural Resource Management (NCRM) organisations and ranger groups perform many tasks. These include management of heritage sites, surveillance, monitoring and management of wildlife, fire management, feral animal control, weed control and recording of Indigenous ecological and cultural knowledge.

Local communities, and even the United Nations, have widely acknowledged the benefits of Indigenous ranger programs.

Gerry Turpin, a Mbarbaram man from Northern Queensland and ethnobotanist at the Queensland Herbarium, explains:

For us, it’s about meaningful employment for our young people including training and opportunities to develop a career. The program not only benefits the individual but is significant for their families and the wider community. Benefits are not only employment but also physical, mental and spiritual health, and pride in our culture and country.

We need rangers on country as our country has been under assault since colonial times. Impacts include mining, cattle and weeds, which then impacts on our flora and fauna. Our strong and diverse presence on country presents an opportunity to work with Indigenous biocultural knowledge systems and Western science.

Participants for the ‘Skills on Country – Cultural Mapping Workshops for Young Traditional Owners’ project on Mbarbaram Country. Funded by the Queensland Indigenous Land and Sea Ranger program.
Gerry Turpin, Author provided

A 2015 Australian government review quantified the benefits of the national Indigenous ranger program.

Using the Social Return on Investment methodology, the review found that an investment of A$35.2 million from government and a range of third parties between 2009 and 2015 generated A$96.5 million in social, economic, cultural and environmental returns. That’s nearly a threefold return on investment.

The review also found that, unlike many Indigenous community development programs of the past, the ranger program is:

…effectively overcoming barriers to addressing Indigenous disadvantage and engaging Indigenous Australians on country in meaningful employment to achieve large-scale conservation outcomes, thus aligning the interests of Indigenous Australians and the broader community.

Planning for the Future on Mbabaram Country.

The Indigenous ranger community-based initiative has grown to produce many well-established organisations with expertise in knowledge integration, planning, geographical information systems (GIS), research, training and management.

History of the Indigenous ranger program

In 2017, both the Australian government’s Indigenous ranger program, Working on Country, and Queensland’s Indigenous Land and Sea Ranger program celebrated their 10th anniversaries.

Indigenous rangers are also funded through other avenues such as non-government organisations, national parks and other supporting institutions.

The Working on Country program supports 109 ranger groups and 777 full-time equivalent ranger positions across Australia. The map below shows the breakdown of state and territory funded positions in 2014-15. It highlights that the Queensland Indigenous ranger workforce is substantially smaller than those of Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Queensland rangers make up only about 8% of the Working on Country program. Queensland Indigenous Protected Areas make up less then 6% of Australia’s government-funded Indigenous conservation estate. However, Queensland is Australia’s second-largest state or territory, covering 22.5% of the country.

According to the 2016 census, 29% of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live in Queensland, most of them in the central, south and southeast of the state.



PM&C/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

The disproportionately low allocation of Indigenous ranger positions and Indigenous Protected Areas in Queensland relative to its size and Indigenous population warrants attention at the national level.

Greater support needed in Queensland

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Queensland are not receiving support for Indigenous rangers to match the size of the state and Indigenous population. Most Queensland Indigenous ranger jobs are offered in the remote north of the state and southeast.

Our research reveals large gaps in documented Indigenous biocultural knowledge in southwest and central Queensland, where many Aboriginal people live. This points to the need for enhanced biocultural resource maintenance and possibly revival, which expansion of the ranger program in this region could achieve.


Read more: Remote Indigenous communities are vital for our fragile ecosystems


The Queensland government has called for donors to support the Indigenous Land and Sea Ranger program. Considering the outstanding environmental, economic and social benefits of Indigenous rangers and their overwhelming support by Queenslanders, more could be done in-house.

The Queensland government pledge to add 25 ranger positions, for a total of 101, should be increased fivefold. This would reflect the geographic, cultural and environmental challenges the state faces.

The ConversationWhile the Indigenous ranger support by the state and federal governments to date is to be commended, the Queensland community clearly has an appetite to expand and enhance the Queensland program.

Emilie Ens, Senior lecturer, Macquarie University and Alana Grech, Assistant Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Success for the green parrot fostering program


Parks Australia

The male green parrot feeding his new foster chicks The male green parrot feeds his new foster chicks

Two trials of green parrot fostering have been very succesful in Norfolk Island National Park.

Last year we found a nest of five chicks with two very small females failing to thrive because their older and much bigger brothers were getting most of the food. We decided to try a fostering program, and moved the two larger males to another active nest site – where they would be cared for by another pair of green parrots.

The male at the new site quickly adopted the two chicks, and all the chicks in the nest fledged successfully. And it gave the female chicks in the original nest a much greater chance of survival.

Ranger Joel Christian and Dr. Luis Ortiz-Catedral weighing and measuring a chick before it goes into foster care Ranger Joel Christian and Dr. Luis Ortiz-Catedral weigh and measure a chick before it goes into foster care

With that success under our belts the decision to trial fostering again…

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Media Release: Myall Lakes National Park and Booti Booti National Park


The link below is to a media release concerning park closures in Myall Lakes National Park and Booti Booti National Park, due to the annual Bitou Bush control aerial spraying program.

For more visit:
http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/media/OEHmedia13050902.htm

Africa: Madagascar


Rare Duck Population Grows by Almost 50%

The link below is to an article reporting on the good news story of the Madagascar Pochard (Aythya innotata) duck, which until recently was thought to be extinct. Now a captive breeding program has increased the population by almost 50% in one season.

For more, visit:
http://news.mongabay.com/2012/0406-madagascar_porchard.html

The Fox Has Reached Tasmania


An investigation into possible fox populations in Tasmania has concluded that there are indeed foxes in Tasmania. It is thought that the fox population is currently small, yet the fact that the fox has now reached Tasmania is a major cause for concern. Some 24 plus native species will come under immediate pressure due to the fox now being active throughout the state. Evidence is now overwhelming that foxes are in Tasmania.

An eradication program will continue in its attempt to remove the growing fox problem in Tasmania.