Giant pandas make new home at Calgary Zoo

Like jet-setting rock stars, the four giant pandas flown into Calgary from Toronto are generating a deluge of media coverage,  and excitement.

The pandas, which include two adults, a male and female, as well as two juveniles born in 2015, have taken up residence in a new facility built specifically for them at the Calgary Zoo. The facility will open to the public on May 7.

The pandas are in Canada as part of a ten-year loan agreement with the Chinese government, which stipulated an initial five-year stay in Toronto. With that leg of the pandas’ Canadian journey over, these four charismatic beasts are now slated to become the Calgary Zoo’s darling attraction for the next five years.

There have been lots of preparations to accommodate the pandas, said Trish Exton-Parder, media relations lead at the Calgary Zoo.

“We’ve redone the entire building that used to house our elephants to accommodate pandas,” she said. “It’s been turned into a newly constructed habitat called Panda Passage.”

Preparations have also included training staff on methods of panda care, as well as the particular idiosyncrasies of the four individuals, from Experts at the Toronto Zoo.

“We’ve re-trained staff – we’ve sent staff to China, and other staff members to Toronto to learn about these specific pandas and talk to the keepers there,” said Exton-Parder.

Keeping pandas isn’t entirely new for the Calgary Zoo, however.

“We’ve had pandas before, in 1988, so we have some experience from that time as well,” said Exton-Parder.

That’s helpful, according to Exton-Parder, as pandas are notoriously finicky beasts that can challenge even the most experienced zoo staff. One particular challenge is supplying them with the correct diet.

“They are bears, but don’t eat what most bears normally eat,” said Exton-Parder. “Their diet is 90% bamboo, which they have to eat a lot of because it isn’t digested well – it goes through their system quickly – so the amount of nutrients they gain is minimal.

“They have to eat constantly.”

Supplying the bears with enough of the right type of bamboo is difficult, especially in Calgary.

“It will be shipped in,” said Exton-Parder.

“Obviously in Calgary we can’t grow incredible amounts – we have to source it from somewhere else.”

The two juveniles are scheduled to return to China in a year and a half, after which the Calgary Zoo will attempt to artificially inseminate the female to potentially produce new young. However, this is no simple task.

“Females are only receptive for three days in the year,” said Exton-Parder. “If you don’t time it well, you’re hooped.”

While the exhibit will be a great opportunity to view the raw cuteness of giant pandas, it will also illuminate issues pertaining to their conservation.

“Our education staff will be there to talk about pandas, and help people learn about the whole conservation piece, which is really why we have them in the first place,” said Exton-Parder.

Proceeds from the exhibit are sent to China and allocated directly to conservation efforts there.

“We support all the hard work that is happening there,” said Exton-Parder.

The exhibit will contribute to conservation, not just for imperiled Chinese species, said Exton-Parder.

“We are helping inspire our visitors to look into their backyard, and think conservation,” she said. “Not just for conservation of pandas, but for Canadian species as well.”

“Pandas act as a platform to talk about the Canadian species in our care that we have been very successful in reintroducing to the wild. We can talk about sage grouse, burrowing owl and whooping crane.”

“Sometimes people need a big charismatic animal to start that conservation,” said Exton-Parder.

Such species are referred to as “flagship species,” said Dr. Marco Musiani, an associate professor with the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary. Musiani specializes in wildlife management, genetics and landscape ecology.

“He defines a flagship species as a species that is charismatic, and due to its charisma, is capable of attracting support and funds for conservation.”

Pandas are also an example of how concerted efforts by conservationists can result in the recovery of an endangered wildlife species, said Musiani.

“Pandas are a success story of keeping a species alive when their habitat had been depleted in China, and they were low in numbers,” he said.

Their recovery was achieved through two simultaneous approaches, said Musiani.

“One approach was to recover the habitat in nature, and the other was to have enough pandas to allow for additional introduction into the wild,” he said.

Captive breeding, like the efforts planned within the Calgary Zoo, were essential in bolstering the panda’s population.

“Pandas bred in captivity were used to restock wild populations that were below thresholds in nature.”

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