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Science / Medicine : Pandas Face Evolutionary Dead End, Expert Warns

January 16, 1989|MARK S. DEL VECCHIO | Del Vecchio is a writer for United Press International. and

BEIJING — The giant panda, already facing extinction in its native land, has been forced into a cycle of inbreeding that could soon lead the species to an evolutionary dead end, a top Chinese zoologist warned last week.

Giant pandas in China's central mountain regions have been isolated in small bands, leading to increased inbreeding and the "deterioration of the species," Pan Wenshi, a panda expert at Beijing University, told the semi-official China News Service.

The zoologist suggested a program to move wild male pandas from group to group in order to ensure a more varied genetic mix.

Fewer than 1,000 pandas survive in the wild, scattered in groups of fewer than 50 pandas each across 12 mountainous preserves in China's rugged Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces.

The small bands are highly vulnerable to extinction from food shortages, disease, poaching and loss of habitat due to expansion of farming areas by Chinese peasants.

Pan said that in the Qinling Mountains, which cross central Shaanxi and Sichuan provinces, five groups of pandas inhabit areas separated by dense mountain forests. While four of the groups can interact and freely exchange mates, the fifth group has been cut off from the rest.

"According to genetic theory, the pandas in this area will all be cousins within 80 years," he said.

Pan said efforts must be made to keep open corridors between the so-called "mountain islands" inhabited by the pandas so they can freely migrate.

Giant pandas reproduce at a slow rate in the wild--usually two years between successful births--and births are even more rare in captivity.

Last fall, China announced it would no longer allow giant pandas to be exported for exhibition in the United States because the money-making practice was further endangering the species by keeping pandas of child-bearing age out of China, where they could be artificially bred.

China has raised at least 28 pandas through artificial breeding and has recently stepped up breeding efforts in zoos nationwide by matching giant pandas capable of reproduction with suitable mates.

The program could be aided by a recent breakthrough in panda pregnancy testing. Three Beijing zoologists announced last week they now can determine if a giant panda is pregnant as early as four days, shaving seven weeks off previous tests.

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