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Documentary reveals pandas' problems

By JULIAN SHEA in London | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2021-10-16 07:18

The makers of a major new internationally co-produced wildlife documentary series currently being streamed in China on Bilibili say studying the mating patterns of giant pandas made them realize that many of the most commonly held opinions about the animals and their behavior are entirely untrue.

The Mating Game is the latest series produced by Silverback Films for the world-renowned BBC Natural History Unit and Discovery, in partnership with Bilibili, France Televisions and Japan's NHK.

Filmed in 22 countries across six continents, it looks at the variety of ways different species around the world go through the experience of courtship and mating.

The fifth and final episode visits the Wolong Panda Center in China's Sichuan province and features giant pandas, commonly regarded as being some of nature's worst breeders. But episode producer Simon Nash told China Daily that the reality is less simple than people assume.

"The beauty of the giant panda story is that superficially, yes, they're bad breeders but only because of what humans have done to them," he said.

"Sticking two together in a zoo and expecting them to get on with it isn't the normal way, and as you dig beneath the surface, all the things we think we know prove to be wrong.

"The public perception is that they're notoriously bad at mating, but they're not-leave them alone in the wild and they do much better than captive breeding. It's our understanding of what they need that is missing. In the series, we're looking at habitat destruction and the reinvention of their wild habitat, as that's where the root of the problem came from.

"Initially, there were big wild stretches of forest where they bred well, and where they've survived thousands of years, but they're dependent totally on bamboo as a food source, and what people don't realize is that it's a grass that is like a clone. You can have huge swathes of forest but, genetically, there's only a small number of plants, which all grow, flower and die at the same time, so then they have to find more food.

"Usually, this wouldn't be an issue, they'd go over the mountain to find more, but human incursion and activities like logging have decreased their habitat to the point where they're only in disconnected pockets, which is why we've had to resort to captive breeding."

A greater understanding of pandas' behavioral habits and advances in medical technology have helped the captive breeding programs make major advances in terms of population growth, but this in turn has presented another challenge.

"I think the original target was to breed around 300 pandas, but now they're up to around 600, which is a fantastic achievement, but has created another problem, as most of these animals are now not bred to have the characteristics to survive in the wild," Nash said.

"For many years, pandas couldn't go back into the wild as they were going back to isolated pockets. But what the Chinese authorities have done, which is brilliant, is (the protection of) more of them, and they plan to link them all into one giant reserve, which would mean a better chance of survival in the wild, the ability to survive bamboo dying off, and to interbreed, so they go back into a world with more space and more chances of their own territorial areas."

Other creatures featured in the series include the banana fiddler crab, the purple throated carib hummingbird, chimpanzees and flamingos.

Series producer Jeff Wilson said one of the pleasures of making films, such as The Mating Game, was how much knowledge was picked up during the filmmaking process.

"The greatest joy of what we do is that the best films are made through spending time in the presence of an animal-that bigger picture knowledge can give us better understanding than a scientist, who studies a particular aspect," he said.

The series is narrated by legendary British wildlife filmmaker David Attenborough, who, at the age of 96, continues to find new wonders in the world of nature for millions of viewers worldwide-and sometimes the filmmakers find new wonders for him, too.



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