Wednesday, 8 December 2010
BBC Natural World: Panda Makers
The following is taken from a review of the TV programme 'Panda makers' on BBC.
To me, pandas always look like people dressed up as pandas, doing not very good panda impressions. They forget to crawl like pandas, and suddenly get up and walk off on two legs. Or they sit, like a fat man with bad posture, looking bored and waiting for someone to come and help them out of their panda suit.
Humans like to anthropomorphise animals, of course, but certain animals – among them pandas, penguins and owls – seem to meet us halfway. It doesn't stop us driving them to the edge of extinction, but it gets them a place in the front of the queue when the conservation money is handed out.
There are only about 2,000 giant pandas left in the wild. China is spending vast amounts of money on captive breeding to restore numbers, but in this project the panda is not prepared to meet us halfway. Watching Natural World: Panda Makers (BBC1), one quickly got an idea of how little help pandas are when it comes to panda breeding. It's not that they don't like sex, said David Attenborough – that's a myth, apparently – it's just that captivity puts them in the wrong mood. And a few generations down the line, the male pandas have forgotten how to do it. I'm not squeamish about pandas having sex, but I did find it excruciating to watch the lumbering, modestly endowed Pin Pin's inept performance.
The difficulties don't end there. Females are only in heat for 72 hours. You can't tell if they're pregnant or not, so you just have to wait until the birth, which can take anything between 11 weeks and 11 months. The good news is they have twins about half the time; the bad news is they always abandon one. And a newborn panda is by no means the finished article. It looks like a skinned squirrel, and weighs about 100g.
With endless patience, however – plus artificial insemination, constant testing and a neat trick where they swap the twins up to 10 times a day to get the mother to feed both – the Chengdu research base of giant panda breeding has created a captive population of about 300, which it means to reintroduce into the wild. Visitors come to watch the pandas dance, roll about and eat bamboo shoots. The young ones are especially cute, and they don't seem to mind being carried about like soft toys.
Some experts believe this project is the most colossal waste of conservation money ever, but it's hard to think like that while you're watching pandas at play, just as it's hard not to think that any minute they're all going to stop, pull their panda-heads off and light fags.