Eats, shoots and leaves, an essay on giant pandas

June 30th, 2011

Giant panda in Chengdu in South Western China. Photo by: Shubhobroto Ghosh.

By: Shubhobroto Ghosh

Please note : The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not representative of the viewpoints of any organization.

“We have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning” – Werner Heisenberg, Nobel Prize winner in Physics (1932) in Physics and Philosophy (1958).

Among the hundreds of images and descriptions of what is possibly the cutest living animal, the giant panda, one particularly sticks in my mind, the anecdote about an animal that goes to eat in a restaurant. The animal looks at a dictionary lying on the table and finds the entry on giant panda saying : “Giant Panda – Bearlike animal found in China. Eats, shoots and leaves.” The animal takes out a revolver slung around its waist, shoots in the air twice, startles customers and leaves. The epithet is meant to serve as a lesson in English language syntax. It is not known if real Giant Pandas raid restaurants for food or carry revolvers around their waists, but there were plenty of offerings connected to this animal during a recent trip to China.

When I heard that my participation in a conference on animal protection was confirmed in early June 2011, I drove everyone around me and the organizers into a tizzy because I spoke of nothing but giants pandas till the time I actually landed in China. I forgot about everything else apart from the obsession to see a live giant panda in person, the symbol of World Wildlife Fund that is meant to serve as a beacon for conservation worldwide. I harried my co passenger Rohit Gangwal, of a wildlife protection group from Jaipur named Raksha that we would rush for the zoo as soon as we set foot in Chengdu in South Western China.

No sooner had the plane landed that my giant panda dream erupted vociferously and made me impatient with each passing moment. Rohit put up with a lot of unreasonable demands from me and sacrificed a well earned rest to accompany me to the Chengdu Zoo. We went in and the first signboard that caught my eye was that of the giant panda. My heart was racing at the prospect of seeing the animal alive, but the first sighting was disappointing to say the least. I came across a sleeping animal with his bum pasted to a glass pane. But it was a sighting after all and my excitement remained all the same as I ran to the other end of the enclosure only to find a second animal inside in a similar position. I was riveted anyway, and waited for the animals to wake up and almost ignored the smaller and just as cute red pandas eating lunch in an adjacent enclosure. I could have waited for eternity just to see the animals awake, but time was not of the essence and I had to move on.

Chengdu Zoo is a large one and the commentary I had heard prior to my visit had not been very charitable. And it did appear in real life that the facility lived up to the rather checkered reputation it had garnered for itself. It is a large facility, by any standards and the grounds are quite beautiful and tastefully decorated but what you see inside the enclosures really do depress you. Most large animals are in small, unfurnished enclosures that do not provide them any enrichment in their lives. And large animals there are many.

Among the notable large mammals displayed at Chengdu Zoo are white rhino, Asian elephant, lions, tigers( some of them white), northern lynx, giraffe, takin, addax, scimitar horned oryx, Pere David’s deer, Bactrian camel, chimpanzee, orangutan, sun bears and moon bears. Some of these species were seen by me for the first time and although it is always a thrill to see a new animal species, the enjoyment is compromised by the fact that they are in small barren enclosures that offer them little privacy. Among the more disturbing facets of the zoo are a cockatoo fed and being made to perform tricks by the public, a pony and a Bactrian camel huddled in small pens and turtles, goldfishes, hamsters and rabbits in tiny cages to be sold outside the zoo gate. It was also disconcerting to see live animals being fed to reptiles in the reptile house and a very distinct overcrowding in the aviaries.

Chengdu Zoo is an astonishing place for birdwatching with light vented bulbuls and rufous capped babblers flitting around everywhere. The zoo has been helped by Animals Asia Foundation in instituting better enrichment measures for their inmates and this is an endeavor that ought to continue.

It would be remiss of me not to mention my parting memory of Chengdu Zoo because they involve giant pandas. It was nearing closing time when I cajoled Rohit to accompany me for a final glimpse of the sleeping beauties. And lo and behold! They obliged by sitting upright in front of us, munching their bamboo sticks, the classical giant panda pose that has beguiled many a conservationist and the general public in countries throughout the world. It was indeed a sight to cherish and I stood like a statue for half an hour savoring the animal going about its dinner. It was an unforgettable sight, but I repeat that the giant pandas in Chengdu Zoo are not in the best of conditions. Their dens are featureless and they are forced to be in public gaze, and although this is how I managed to see the mythical creature for the first time, I would rather have them getting access to their outside enclosures (filled with greenery and of a modest size) for twenty four hours a day. The irony is heightened by the fact that the zoo has loudspeakers in front of the giant panda enclosure playing songs like, “I see skies are blue…..” Well, the skies are maybe blue but in a coop, it is certainly not a wonderful life for the inmates and this practice ought to be stopped in the facility.

Part of my dream realized, I returned to the hotel feeling satiated and replete with memories of the day. Friends and colleagues from across the world were met and accosted and courtesies, pleasantries, hugs and kisses exchanged. Some of them whetted my appetite for seeing more giant pandas by showing me pictures of the animals in the famed Chengdu Giant Panda Research and Breeding Base (winner of the United Nations Global 500 Environmental Award).

So another round of desperate requests and pleadings followed and this time I found three companions to visit the place : Arvind Sharma from Himachal Pradesh, Sashanka Dutta from Assam and Jiban Das from Orissa. The Giant Panda centre does make you feel the magic of the natural habitat of the animal. The moment you enter, you well and truly imbibe the spirit of the Giant Panda and evoke memories and descriptions of the animal as portrayed by George Schaller, Desmond Morris and the French missionary Pere David who is credited with having brought this creature to the notice of Westerners (This element of discovery has a dubious aspect that is increasingly being taken note of by many).

There are several trails that lead one to different enclosures housing the animals. The first one only revealed a sleeping animal and a specimen ambling in the bush far away. But again, luck was on our side and just as we were about to depart for another enclosure, one animal came walking within visible range and started feasting on bamboo. Again the classical pose, and the cameras started clicking. I guess one can never ever tire of seeing a Giant Panda in that position, the cuteness of the animal is extraordinary. The animal, due to its neotenic features spontaneously solicits a bond and connection bordering on profound spirituality. Observing the animal in his home country, in his home state, in surroundings that do approximate the wild state although the animal is in confinement, does fill one with a sense of awe and respect. The sight of a living giant panda can make even the most hard nosed scientist or biologist forget objectivity. As many field biologists are now tending to acknowledge, it is well nigh impossible not to get emotionally involved in the lives of individual animals that one observes as part of a study, the compassionate component is as important as the scientific element.

There are many young giant pandas on display in the Chengdu centre and there are always hordes of people ogling over them. The centre has 96 giant pandas under its custody, 22 of them loaned to zoos in China and abroad. I had the great good fortune of having a personal session with Sarah Bexell, head of Conservation Education at the Giant Panda Center. Sarah demonstrated many conservation initiatives that have been instituted in Sichuan province to help protect this animal in the wild by taking into account needs of the local populace.

Although this article is principally about giant pandas and my absolute and childish fascination for seeing an animal in flesh that I had read tomes about, the narrative would be incomplete without paying a tribute to the Animals Asia Foundation founder Jill Robinson and her energetic team at the Moon Bear Rescue Center in Chengdu. I had the privilege of visiting this place with several luminaries of wildlife conservation and welfare and can state unequivocally that it stands out as one of the best captive animal facilities I have seen anywhere. Here, bears that have endured a lifetime of abuse in captivity in bear bile farms are accorded a second chance to live.

But I must get back to the pandas, especially because I also saw the beautiful and cute red pandas at the Giant Panda Center in Chengdu. I saw only one animal, clambering through the dense foliage and his scarlet pelage seemed as brilliant and attractive as the piebald colouring of his larger cousin.

The most enduring image of the symbol of World Wildlife Fund remains a cliche, but one I do not resent writing. An animal sitting upright, holding its food in its pseudo thumb, eating shoots and leaves. The imagery given by the animal in the restaurant anecdote is well justified in real life on all grounds.

Red panda in Chengdu in South Western China. Photo by: Shubhobroto Ghosh.

About the author: Shubhobroto Ghosh is a former journalist for the Telegraph newspaper whose work has also been published in the Times of India, New York Times, The Statesman, The Asian Age, and the Hindu. He has worked on conservation issues in India and UK for several organisations and was project coordinator of the Indian Zoo Inquiry project. He did his Masters thesis on British zoos. He currently works in the NGO sector and maintains a keen interest in environmental issues.

Activism: funds needed to replant forest for nearly-extinct loris

June 28th, 2011

Note: as a news organization does not endorse the action below, but believes its readers may be interested in taking action or discussing the issue in comments.

Horton Plains slender loris. Photo courtesy of EDGE.

Researchers estimate that only 80 Horton Plains slender loris (Loris tardigradus nycticeboides) survive in the world. After believed to be extinct ZSL EDGE rediscovered the subspecies in a dwindling Sri Lanka forest in 2009. Now EDGE is working to raise money to fund reforestation of a vital corridor for the Horton Plains slender loris. Already, the loris has lost 80% of its habitat.

From the EDGE blog: “This project will not only benefit the endangered loris, but also a host of other species found within the threatened montane forest environment such as the leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya), the ‘shaggy bear monkey’ (Trachypithecus vetulus monticola), the endemic Nillu rat (Rattus montanus), and the Sri Lanka spiny mouse (Mus ohiensis) amongst others.”

To donate money to the project: Reforestation Project in Sri Lanka for Horton Plains slender loris.

Banana plantation threatens rainforest valley (video)

June 21st, 2011

Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains were recently spared a titanium mine, however now the region faces a new peril: bananas. The Australian firm Indochina Gateway Capital Limited has proposed a banana plantation in the Southern Cardamom Mountains. The plantation would likely destroy an elephant corridor for one of Cambodia’s last wild elephant populations. In addition, pesticides used in the plantation could pollute local waters, threatening nearly-extinct species, such as the royal turtle, and local people.

According to Wildlife Alliance: [we] recently proposed an alternate plantation location to Indochina Gateway as a win-win solution: Move the proposed location of the plantation to the nearby province of Kampot, where the same beneficial conditions exist (i.e. excellent water supply and good soil). Beyond that our proposed plantation area is actually closer to a harbor and labor sources, and it is located in truly degraded forest inside a low priority ecosystem.

For more information: Learn About the Threat to Key Tropical Forest Corridor Presented by Banana Plantation

For more on the conservation organization Wildlife Alliance:

Cambodia’s wildlife pioneer: saving species and places in Southeast Asia’s last forest

(05/11/2011) Suwanna Gauntlett has dedicated her life to protecting rainforests and wildlife in some of the world’s most hostile and rugged environments and has set the trend of a new generation of direct action conservationists. She has designed, implemented, and supported bold, front-line conservation programs to save endangered wildlife populations from the brink of extinction, including saving the Amur Tiger (also known as the Siberian Tiger) from extinction in the 1990s in the Russian Far East, when only about 80 individuals remained and reversing the drastic decline of Olive Ridley sea turtles along the coast of Orissa, India in the 1990s, when annual nestings had declined from 600,000 to a mere 8,130. When she first arrived in Cambodia in the late 1990s, its forests were silent. ‘You couldn’t hear any birds, you couldn’t hear any wildlife and you could hardly see any signs of wildlife because of the destruction,’ Gauntlett said. Wildlife was being sold everywhere, in restaurants, on the street, and even her local beauty parlor had a bear.

Rising hope for Asia’s vultures?

May 31st, 2011

Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction from The RSPB on Vimeo.

Vultures may not get a lot of love, or respect for that matter, from the public, but they play a vital role in cleaning up and recycling nature’s waste, which also helps prevent diseases from spreading. Vultures were once abundant throughout Asia, but that was until veterinary drug diclofenac became common. Used on cattle and livestock, researchers discovered in 2003 that the drug was toxic to vultures, killing any bird that consumed the deceased livestock. Within years populations plummeted, putting several once-abundant species on the Critically Endangered list.

Rapid response from conservationists, including innovative and unique programs, have provided hope that vultures species may still survive.

Economic worth of living sharks (video)

May 15th, 2011

It turns out that sharks are worth more alive than dead. According to a new study, a single shark is worth $1.9 million over its lifetime as a tourist attraction in the island nation of Palau. Sold for consumption the shark is worth around $108. In this case a shark is worth a stunning 17,000 times more alive than dead. Sharks worldwide are being decimated, largely for the Asian delicacy shark fin soup. Some populations have fallen by over 90%.

The study did not collect data on the shark’s economic worth as providing other ‘ecosystem services’.

For more information:

Left alive and wild, a single shark worth $1.9 million

(05/02/2011) For the Pacific island nation of Palau, sharks are worth much more alive than dead. A new study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) has found that one reef shark during its full life is worth $1.9 million to Palau in tourism revenue. Sold for consumption the shark is worth around $108. In this case a shark is worth a stunning 17,000 times more alive than dead.

Photo: baby Grevy’s zebra makes appearance

May 12th, 2011

Born at the beginning of the year, a Grey's zebra foal has made its first appearance at the Wildlife Conservation Society's (WCS) Bronx Zoo. Photo by: Julie Larsen Maher.
Born at the beginning of the year, a Grey’s zebra foal has made its first appearance at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Bronx Zoo. Photo by: Julie Larsen Maher.

Listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List, the Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) population has fallen by 50% over the past two decades. As of 2008 there was estimated around 750 adult animals survive in the wild. The species survives in Kenya and Ethiopia. It may be present in Sudan as well.

Grevy’s zebra has suffered from increased competition for water and food with local livestock. Juveniles, particularly, have a difficult time surviving. Loss of water to irrigation and in places hunting are also of concern.

Photos: ugly is the new adorable when it comes to saiga babies

May 3rd, 2011

A pair of saiga calves.  Photo by: Igor Shpilenok.
A pair of saiga calves. Photo by: Igor Shpilenok.

Few species have seen a worse decline in the past 15 years than the Asian antelope, the saiga. Once known for making up one of the world’s largest migrations, the saiga population has dropped from 1.25 million in the 1990s to 50,000 animals today, plunging over 90% and landing itself on the Critically Endangered species list.

The Saiga Conservation Alliance (SCA), which is working hard to save this species from extinction, has turned to a new model to help: eco-tourism. The group, along with travel company Saga Voyages, is organizing a tour of a unique, rarely visited region in Russia to see and support the saiga. But that’s not all: birding, other wildlife viewing, and cultural visits are also apart of this unique trip. SCA hopes the tour will help convince locals in the region that saiga and other wildlife can bring economic investment and interest from abroad.

Saiga calves.  Photo by: Nils Bunnefeld.
Saiga calves. Photo by: Nils Bunnefeld.

An adult male saiga.  Photo by: Nils Bunnefeld.
An adult male saiga. Photo by: Nils Bunnefeld.

About the tour: First International Saiga Ecotour to Southern Russia

For more information (and photos from the region):

New eco-tour to help save bizarre antelope in ‘forgotten’ region

(05/01/2011) Imagine visiting a region that is largely void of tourists, yet has world-class bird watching, a unique Buddhist population, and one of the world’s most bizarre-looking and imperilled mammals: the saiga. A new tour to Southern Russia hopes to aid a Critically Endangered species while giving tourists an inside look at a region “largely forgotten by the rest of the world,” says Anthony Dancer. Few species have fallen so far and so fast in the past 15 years as Central Asia’s antelope, the saiga. Its precipitous decline is reminiscent of the bison or the passenger pigeon in 19th Century America, but conservationists hopes it avoids the fate of the latter.

Photos: up close and personal with Sumatran elephants

May 1st, 2011

Baby Sumatran elephant on the run.
Baby Sumatran elephant on the run.

Photos of Sumatran elephants at Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park on the island of Sumatra. These Sumatran elephants are patrol elephants; they’ve been recently domesticated and are used to reduce human-wildlife conflict. All photos by Rhett A. Butler.

 Meeting of the minds.
Meeting of the minds.

Sumatran elephant with mahout.
Sumatran elephant with mahout.

Trunk tricks
Trunk tricks.


Big male.
Big male.


Modern world.
Modern world.

To see more photos of Sumatran elephants: Sumatran Elephants

To see why elephants are vital to the forests they inhabit:

Elephants: the gardeners of Asia’s and Africa’s forests

(04/25/2011) It seems difficult to imagine elephants delicately tending a garden, but these pachyderms may well be the world’s weightiest horticulturalist. Elephants both in Asia and Africa eat abundant amounts of fruit when available; seeds pass through their guts, and after expelled—sometimes tens of miles down the trail—sprouts a new plant if conditions are right. This process is known by ecologists as ‘seed dispersal’, and scientists have long studied the ‘gardening’ capacities of monkeys, birds, bats, and rodents. Recently, however, researchers have begun to document the seed dispersal capacity of the world’s largest land animal, the elephant, proving that this species may be among the world’s most important tropical gardeners.

Photo: zoo elephants enjoy spring

April 26th, 2011

Three Asian elephants from the Zoological Society of London’s Whipsnade Zoo take a spring stroll under blossoming Japanese miniature cherry trees. Photo by: Hannah Thompson. recently conducted an interview on how wild Asian elephants, and their African counterparts, are vital to ‘gardening’ the continent’s tropical forests. To read more:

Elephants: the gardeners of Asia’s and Africa’s forests

(04/25/2011) It seems difficult to imagine elephants delicately tending a garden, but these pachyderms may well be the world’s weightiest horticulturalist. Elephants both in Asia and Africa eat abundant amounts of fruit when available; seeds pass through their guts, and after expelled—sometimes tens of miles down the trail—sprouts a new plant if conditions are right. This process is known by ecologists as ‘seed dispersal’, and scientists have long studied the ‘gardening’ capacities of monkeys, birds, bats, and rodents. Recently, however, researchers have begun to document the seed dispersal capacity of the world’s largest land animal, the elephant, proving that this species may be among the world’s most important tropical gardeners.

Photos: the end of the radiated tortoise?

April 18th, 2011

Like the American bison or the passenger pigeon the radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) has gone from super-abundant to nearly extinct. The species could be gone by 2030 warn researchers. Photo by Robert Walker.

Once one of the world’s most abundant tortoises, numbering in the millions, Madagascar’s radiated tortoise is on the very brink of extinction. Killed for their meat by one of the world’s most impoverished people, new surveys last month by the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), The Orianne Society, and Nautilus Ecology have further confirmed the precipitous decline of this once common reptile.

“Traditionally, tortoise meat was served on special occasions, but now it is eaten on a daily basis. Hundreds of pieces of discarded tortoise shells litter the sidewalks in some communities. This staggering level of consumption is not sustainable,” explains Dr. Christina Castellano, Director of Turtle Conservation at The Orianne Society in a press release.

Armed poaching gangs are causing “the systematic extermination of this species” says Ryan Walker, a biologist with Nautilus Ecology.

Tortoise meat being prepared for sale in a poaching camp. Photo courtesy of The Orianne Society.

Radiated Tortoise shells litter the ground in the town of Tsiombe. Photo courtesy of The Orianne Society.

For more information on the demise of the radiated tortoise:

1000 rare tortoises poached each week in Madagascar

(09/30/2010) One thousand endangered tortoises are being illegally collected each week in southern Madagascar, reports WWF.

Once common tortoise from Madagascar will be ‘extinct in 20 years’

(04/05/2010) The radiated tortoise, once common throughout Madagascar, faces extinction within the next 20 years due to poaching for its meat and the illegal pet trade, according to biologists with the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Returning from field surveys in southern Madagascar’s spiny forest, they found regions without a single turtle. Locals said that armed bands of poachers were taking truckloads of tortoises to be sold in meat markets. The tortoise is also popular in the underground pet trade, although it is protected by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).