Cutest job in the world not so cushy! Panda keepers risk injury and depression

By Zhang Hui Source:Global Times Published: 2018/2/1 19:48:39

Panda keepers face increasing public scrutiny as cameras live-stream zoos

Pandas, China's iconic native bear, are in fact extremely dangerous, with many keepers harmed while on the job

The prevalence of live-streaming panda sites has made some conservation centers more transparent

China continues to strengthen international cooperation on the scientific research of pandas

Panda keeper Zhang Naicheng feeds the bears at a Chongqing zoo. Photo: VCG

Panda keeper Zhang Naicheng feeds a panda at a Chongqing zoo. Photo: VCG

Panda keeper Zhang Naicheng feeds the pandas at a Chongqing zoo. Photo: VCG

Despite being called the "world's best job," "happiest job," and "funniest job," these labels are not nearly enough to describe a panda keeper.

Indeed, it must feel amazing to cuddle and hang out with the adorable black and white bears, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the sudden rush of love when holding and feeding a panda cub.

However, these cute moments that panda lovers often see on panda channels and live streaming websites are only part of what panda keepers do. An important part of a panda keeper's job is to train pandas to survive when released into the wild. But behind their joy are also the occasional scars and life-threatening injuries.

"Training pandas is extremely dangerous. Panda keepers have to conduct the training in a complicated wild environment with wooded ravines while facing possible attacks from pandas and other wild animals such as bears and wild boars," said Zhang Dalei, a panda keeper at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda (CCRCGP) in Southwest China's Sichuan Province.

Aside from these risks, panda keepers are now also under intense supervision from worldwide panda fans as part of their live broadcasts; any improper behavior by the keepers is immediately exposed and punished.

Additionally, following strengthened international scientific research on pandas, Chinese panda keepers often have to train their foreign counterparts and even travel to foreign countries for months at a time to take care of their pandas and offer instructions to foreign zoos.

China had 1,864 giant pandas in the wild at the end of 2015, up from 1,100 in 2000. There are also 422 pandas presently in captivity, according to China's State Forestry Administration.

Wei Hua is treated at a hospital in Chengdu, Sichuan Province on December 28, 2016, after being attacked by giant panda Ximei, who mistook him as a danger to her cub. Photo: VCG

Into the wild

According to written materials the CCRCGP provided to the Global Times, panda keepers often have to stay up late for their work and cannot spend many holidays like the forthcoming Spring Festival with family and friends, as these holidays tend to fall on the mating season.

Cheng Jianbin, a panda keeper for the past six years, said that he often works till midnight during the pandas' mating season. According to him, the season usually occurs between March and May, and is affected by climate and environment. Some seasons are delayed until summer or even winter.

The keeper recalled that, one night during Spring Festival holiday in 2015, he had to help panda Longxin find her life partner.

Cheng tested Longxin's urine, moved her in with several male pandas for natural mating, but failed due to atypical oestrus (sexual receptivity and fertility in female mammals). Finally, Cheng and his colleagues were forced to tie up Longxin, sedate her and conduct artificial insemination.

Wei Hua, a 42-year-old former panda keeper, was left with lifelong physical disabilities. In December of 2016, Wei was severely mauled by the female panda Ximei, who bit him numerous times and dragged him across the ground in an enclosure at the Tiantai Training Center in Wolong.

The extent of his injuries was horrific: two broken wrists, torn foot tendons, multiple bites and gashes and part of his left hand missing. One year after the attack, Wei is still recovering, and yet he longs to return to work and back to his beloved pandas.

Panda keepers often must wear special, comical-looking panda costumes sprayed with panda urine to reduce human influence in their environment.

Wei was attacked while checking up on Ximei's son Baxi, which is when Ximei mistook Wei as a danger to her cub. Zhang, his colleague, said that their mission was to train captive-bred pandas to adapt to the wildness, which is vital to their conservation in China.

Diao Kunpeng, a panda expert at Beijing-based NGO Shan Shui Conservation Center, told the Global Times that captive pandas will be released into the wild after their training in order to improve their genetic diversity and eventually - hopefully - prevent their extinction.

Baxi was returned to nature in November 2017, and thus far has adapted well to the wild. A total of seven captive-bred pandas have been returned to nature since 2006.

Netizen involvement

The growing popularity of video clips and live streaming websites featuring giant pandas has raised awareness about panda conservation from an increasing number of panda fans all over the world, Zhao Huawen, founder of the Eudemonia Bank, an organization based in Chengdu dedicated to protecting panda habitats, told the Global Times.

Many panda videos on Chinese online streaming platforms such as have attracted over 1 million views, and State media have also been posting more panda photos and videos on foreign social media including YouTube, Twitter and Facebook in order to attract a global audience.

Many netizens watching such videos express their wishes to become panda keepers. Gapper, a Shanghai-based volunteer organization, launched a panda program in 2017 to organize college students to volunteer at panda bases in Sichuan Province, a marketing department employee surnamed Huang from Gapper told the Global Times.

During their five-day program, panda keepers in Sichuan teach the young volunteers how to clean up panda excrement and prepare apples, carrots and other snacks. Such volunteer programs can also be found at several other panda bases around China.

"All of these videos and volunteer programs have made the keepers' job more transparent, urging them to work more cautiously to reduce the chances of improper treatment to pandas," Diao said.

Panda keepers have also been placed under public supervision, as panda fans now report any suspected panda abuse cases to authorities, Zhao said. For instance, last week Chinese netizens became outraged following a widely circulated online post about mite infections at Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, although the base later denied the accusation.

In July of 2017, panda fans posted video footage of a panda cub being dragged on the ground by panda keepers at a Chengdu research base. Netizens denounced the behavior, and several days later the involved panda keepers received oral criticism from the base, reported.

"However, exposure of panda abuse cases online have also turned pandas into a sensitive issue in China, as many zoos are now reluctant to cooperate with a third party on panda conservation projects or related surveys, and some panda keepers are nervous about talking about their work," Zhao said.

International research

Giant pandas have often played a unique role in China's politics and diplomacy as irreplaceable goodwill ambassadors of friendship. In recent years, China has strengthened international cooperation on the scientific research of pandas.

The CCRCGP established scientific research relationships with 15 zoos in 13 countries including the US, the UK and Japan. Currently, 34 giant pandas have been sent abroad, giving birth to 18 overseas panda cubs, according to a press release CCRCGP sent to the Global Times.

In the most recent case, a pair of giant pandas, Huabao and Jinbaobao, arrived in Helsinki on January 18, making Finland the eighth country in Europe to forge ties with China in panda research.

A Chinese veterinarian and panda keeper from Chengdu will stay at the zoo for one month to train Finnish panda keepers. Two panda keepers from Finland also traveled to Chengdu several times throughout 2017 to learn from their Chinese counterparts, the CCRCGP said.

"Actually, foreign zoos usually start to prepare four or five years before the arrival of pandas, which involves building panda enclosures and planting suitable bamboos. And Chinese panda keepers and animal experts visit the zoos several times to examine the pandas' living environment and food preparations," Diao said.

Foreign countries learn about reproduction technologies from the Chinese side, and China introduces new technologies from other countries, such as GPS tags used on pandas released into the wildness, the Beijing News reported.

However, international scientific research of pandas have also drawn criticism from Western media, which has said that China sends pandas abroad for political and economic purposes rather than scientific research.

Zhao denied the accusations, saying panda conservation is a global cause and plays a significant role in biodiversity conservation worldwide.

Newspaper headline: Risking life and limb

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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