Giant panda blog: Giant pandas and stem cell research

October 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

YG_EatingBamboo_1In terms of European giant panda zoos, RZSS is pretty unique. We have three agreements with our Chinese colleagues. One is the ten year loan of Yang Guang; one the ten year loan of Tian Tian; and the other is a research agreement. The giant panda zoo model that we fit into is much closer to American zoos than our European counterparts.

RZSS is currently facilitating 40 giant panda related projects around the world. Some of these projects we are funding, some we have sought external funding for, some we are collaborating and partnering other organisations, and some we are merely the gatekeepers providing samples like hair or faeces. Excitingly, our experts are currently working with nine universities in the UK.

All this research work stems from the Giant Panda Research Symposium held in Edinburgh in 2013, when RZSS gathered over 60 experts from around the world to help develop a five-year research plan for giant pandas, with the aim of generating global action on how giant pandas are cared for in zoos around the world and in Chinese reserves.

This week a scientific paper was published regarding a stem cell production project with a number of other prestigious organisations. Basically stem cells have been produced from swabs. Why is this important? Because it gives conservationists another method of bio-banking genetic resource other than sperm or eggs.

Cell lines, created from easily collectable samples like cheek swabs, help with research into some of the deadly diseases that pandas are susceptible to – such as distemper, parvovirus and retrovirus. Cell lines allow us to test potential vaccines without having to involve the animals themselves, and they can also be used for tissue repair.

Importantly, this has nothing to do with cloning, although some key figures involved in the cloning of Dolly the sheep are sharing their expertise as part of the project.

Iain Valentine

RZSS Director of Giant Pandas

Director of Giant Pandas Blog

June 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

by Iain Valentine, Director of Giant Pandas

So it is June and much has happened since our last update…

I am sure all of you have followed the news of the run up to and the outcome of the panda breeding season for 2014. As with previous years, it was an intensive time of monitoring behaviours and hormones in Tian Tian and our own expert team was supported throughout by Dr Chengdong Wang of the China Conservation & Research Centre for the Giant Panda (CCRCGP).

Panda-Symposium_Final-1FrontCoverWith Tian Tian’s behaviour not favourable enough for us to put Yang Guang and her physically together, we conducted one artificial insemination on Tian Tian the afternoon of 13 April. Despite us going quiet, a lot has been happening since and I promise to write more on the procedure and the results of recent test results from Tian Tian soon.

On this occasion, I wanted to share with you a very large piece of work which we have just completed and which has been made available to all of the participants of the Jaguar Land Rover China (JLR) Giant Panda Research Symposium which was held here in Edinburgh in September last year.

The contents of the report is self-explanatory, but you will see that what it does is outline the important projects with panda conservation and research work which the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland will be looking to do here in the UK and in China over the next few years.

We know from many meetings that we have had with our Chinese partners, and various other meetings which we have had with other “panda zoos” around the world, that the in-house expertise that RZSS has, and the expertise of the world class institutes and universities which we are associated with, are very much needed to safeguard the future of giant pandas both in captivity and in the wild.

I have pleasure in sharing this important document (2MB pdf) with you and soon the full five year Giant Panda Research Strategy document will follow it.

Director of Giant Pandas Blog

January 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

Happy New Year!

It’s been a while since our last blog, but as this one coincides with the Chinese New Year beginning on the 31st January it’s only right that we wish all of our panda followers Xin Nian Kuai Le also. 2014 is the Chinese Year of the Horse that is often associated with love, romance and relationships…….so fingers crossed for Tian Tian and Yang Guang.

Tian Tian

Tian Tian

With panda breeding, there are several key things to remember. First, pandas are seasonal breeders, so light levels are important for them as this triggers changes in their body and in the bamboo on which they feed. Secondly, male pandas are in season for around four months of the year (from around mid-Jan though to mid-May) and during this time they will mate with as many female pandas in season as they can; well if the females and other mature males allow them to! Individual panda females are only in season for around 40 hours a year and they have a multiple mating strategy; in other words a female panda in the wild would be mated by several males during the 40 hours she was in peak season.

Therefore, when you are working with two pandas, as we are with Tian Tian and Yang Guang, we have to bring a fair amount of science to the table in order to improve Tian Tian’s chances of producing a cub. In effect, for the panda keepers at Edinburgh Zoo, the panda breeding season has already begun!

As of Christmas 2013, we again began to collect daily urine samples from Tian Tian; these are being picked up and analysed so that we can monitor two key hormones for breeding purposes – progesterone and oestrogen. So far, as we would expect, there is no big news to report regarding changing hormones level, but we are picking up and noticing quite a lot of behaviours associated with breeding in both giant pandas. Tian Tian and Yang Guang are already clearly showing an increased interest in one another and both pandas are fairly regularly seen scent marking now.


Yang Guang

Both pandas are in good health, with Yang Guang especially looking excellent and now almost “pink” white, which is what you see in mature male pandas. We’re also seeing food intake increasing in both pandas as they seek to drive their body weight up and take their condition to the best it can be ready for breeding; all fantastic instinctive pre-breeding behaviours that we want to be seeing.

The weather we’re experiencing right now is also the best kind of weather for pandas – cold and bright, with a hint of snow to come. So if any of you are thinking about visiting the Zoo to see our two giant pandas, please do so, as it’s the best time of year to see them. Right now Tian Tian and Yang Guang are more active than usual and, if you are lucky, you may also see Yang Guang performing that famous “panda handstand” as he scent marks his enclosure!

Director of Giant Pandas Blog

December 23, 2013 § Leave a comment


So it’s been a few weeks since our last giant panda update and I’d like to say happy 50th anniversary to Wolong Nature Reserve and happy 30th anniversary to Wolong Special Administrative Region.

Yang Guang

Yang Guang at Edinburgh Zoo

Wolong Nature Reserve is the most famous of all of giant panda reserves. The reserve was established 50 years ago, then 30 years ago was awarded special administrative status in China. Originally centrally controlled and managed in Beijing, at this point leadership moved to Sichaun and this local led style of management resulted in an even more effective management of the forest for the wildlife and people living in the reserve.

Prof Zhang Hemin, the Director of Wolong Nature Reserve, is also Director of the China Conservation and Research Centre for Giant Pandas (CCRCGP), the organisation that runs the panda breeding centre in Wolong, Bifengxia and Dujiangyan City. Zhang Hemin therefore has and oversight and responsibility, not just for the pandas in the breeding centres, but also of the wild population of pandas in Wolong; this combined leadership results in a holistic programme of management of pandas in his care. Wild pandas benefit from knowledge gained during the captive population and captive pandas benefit from the wild population.

Wolong is actually part of the bigger Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries area, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an area three times the size of Yosemite National Park that contains around 30 percent of the total wild population of Giant Pandas. Please visit if you are interested in finding out more.

The celebrations for Wolong’s significant birthdays’ and milestones took place in Dujiangyan City back on the 10th November, with representatives from all over the world in attendance. Quite definitely and correctly, Wolong’s celebrations were led by local dignitaries and local people, who as well as looking at the past, had a clear view of the future direction of the reserve.

Tian Tian at Edinburgh Zoo

Tian Tian at Edinburgh Zoo

Of course too, the day could not pass without mention of the deadly Sichuan earthquake which struck the region on the 12th May 2008 and the impact it had for the people and wildlife in the area. An earthquake that in many ways the local area is still recovering from. Also known as the Wenchuan Earthquake, its epicentre was Wenchuan County, which Wolong is part of. Official figures for human casualties as of 21st July 2008 were stated as 69,197 confirmed dead, including 68,636 in the Sichuan province, and 374,176 injured, with 18,222 listed as missing. The earthquake left about 4.8 million people homeless, although the number could have been as high as 11 million.

In April 2008, one week prior to the earthquake, several of us from RZSS were at Wolong reserve and whilst there we visited Yingxiu, the last big town you drive through on route up and into Wolong Reserve. On my trip to China last month I purposely visited the town to see how it had recovered, as an incredible 80% had been destroyed in the earthquake, and to see the specially created memorial and museum dedicated to those that died. In that town alone, out of a population of 9,000 people, over 4000 lost their lives. The experience of revisiting the town was both moving and sobering, but also encouraging and uplifting to see the resilience of people in their efforts to rebuild their lives and community.

Of course with such an important reserve and an iconic species like the giant panda on their doorstep, it is little wonder that a large amount of the local economy is driven by panda “tourists”. Hopefully soon the number of visitors to the area will grow even further on completion of a brand new panda breeding centre in Gengda, in Wolong, as the centre at Hetaoping was completely destroyed in the earthquake.

Here is to the next 50 years of Wolong and its important work to protect Giant Pandas!

Best wishes,

Iain Valentine, Director of Giant Pandas

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