Unique London Transport Option: Panda Cabs

panda cabs As a cross-promotion with Chengdu, China, London is bringing “panda cabs” into the city. The campaign includes 50 cabs painted with “Go Chengdu,” the official English tourism website of the Chinese city.

Home of giant pandas, Chengdu showcases their iconic animal on the cabs. While 30 of the taxis are made to look like actual pandas, 20 others are covered in images of the animal. The taxis are part of a summer program themed “Panda Cabs Running For The Olympics.”

Explains Go Chengdu in a press release, “Taking the good opportunity of the London Olympic Games, the Chengdu program is aimed to promote global efforts to conserve the giant pandas, one of the most endangered animals on Earth with only about 1600 living in the world, and harmony between man and nature, which echoes the Olympic spirit of unity, friendship and peace.”

And, if you’ll notice above, even the royal family is helping the cause.

The special cabs, which will circle big name sites like Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly, Marble Arch and Trafalgar Square, will run until August 31, 2012.

Father saves daughter from zoo bear attack

Warning to little girls everywhere–giant teddy bears may very well try to eat you.

Warning to parents everywhere–watch your kids when around dangerous wild animals.

A Dutch family was visiting a private zoo in Luenebach, Germany, when their three-year-old daughter became enchanted by an Asian black bear. While her parents’ backs were turned she climbed the fence, which was only a meter (three feet) tall, and fell inside the bear’s enclosure. The bear then struck the kid. Daddy leaped in, got his own share of bear battering, and managed to save his daughter. Both were taken to the hospital but their injuries are not life-threatening.

This isn’t the first time the bear has acted like, well, a bear. Three years ago he attacked and injured a zookeeper.

Police are now investigating why it was so easy for a small child to get into the bear’s enclosure and why the parents didn’t notice her doing it.

As a parent I can testify to how quickly a small child can slip out of sight and get into mischief, but even when my son was three he knew not to climb fences and approach strange animals. Why? Because I told him. Of course that’s no guarantee, but he hasn’t done it in the first five years of his life, greatly increasing the chances that he will see the next five. Parents, please, teach your kids about animal safety. Cute does not mean safe. Just ask the Chinese guy who suffered a panda attack.

Image courtesy of Guérin Nicolas via Wikimedia Commons.

Seven Endangered Species You Can Still See in the Wild

There is no doubt that we are fascinated with wildlife. We love to watch diverse and interesting animals, preferably in their natural habitats, and we’re often willing to travel to remote places, sometimes at great expense, to see them. If you enjoy the kind of travel that allows for these kinds of animal encounters, they you’ll want to check out BootsnAll’s list of the Seven Endangered Species You Can Find Outside a Zoo.

The article not only lists the creatures, it also gives us the best locations to go and see them for ourselves, including some brief insights into what to expect out of the journey. For instance, if you want to see polar bears in the wild, you can expect a long flight, or 40-hour train ride, to Churchill, Canada, on the famed Hudson Bay, where every October and November, the bears gather, waiting for the bay to freeze so they can continue on northward. The other creatures, and locations that can be found, include: sea turtles in Barbados, tigers in India, rhinos in Tanzania, elephants in South Africa, pandas in China, and gray whales in Mexico.

As the article points out, in the era of ecotourism, these trips to see these rare animals can be a force for good. Conservation efforts can receive funding from our visits and an increased awareness about the plight of the animals helps to prevent poaching and protect natural habitats as well. Just be sure to travel with a reputable guide service and make sure you pack out everything you pack in.

So did they leave anything off the list? I was a bit surprised to not see the mountain gorillas that we wrote about last week, on there. They’d certainly make my top list. What’s on yours?

Dispatch from China: Tracking and playing with pandas (part 2 of 2)

Read part 1 of this story here.

The excited cry of a park ranger pierces the stillness of a bamboo forest high in the Min Mountains. Zhan Xiangjiang, an ecologist who I’m hanging out with for the day, bounds through waist-deep snowdrifts to investigate. Catching up with the ranger, he kneels down and points at a small, round object that, at first glance, looks like a greenish yam. “Smell this!” he says to me.

The not-unpleasant odor of fresh bamboo wafts up. Along with other clues–chewed bamboo stalks, paw prints, and urine-marked trees–the fresh scat is the latest evidence that Zhan’s monitoring team is hot on the heels of a giant panda.
Their quarry may be elusive, but Zhan is upbeat. “Pandas are making a comeback here,” he declares. In the mid-1980s, poaching and a mass bamboo die-off sent China’s flagship animal into a tailspin: The country’s wild panda population plummeted to about 1200, landing the species on the endangered list. Experts decried its imminent extinction. But with a logging ban in all panda habitats since 1999, the species appears to be on the rebound.

It is a hotly debated question, however, whether panda populations are just beginning to regain lost ground or are already healthier than they have been for many years. Virtually nothing about the iconic mammal is without rancor. Another controversy swirls around China’s program to breed giant pandas in captivity. Last year, the effort produced more than 30 cubs–a record–as well as the first captive released into the wild. Some conservationists say the breeding program can bolster wild populations. Others are skeptical.

Zhan, or as I like to call him, Chuckie (asI kept forgetting his Chinese name), cups some scat in his bare hand and grins as it shimmers in the sunlight. “The shiny layer is mucus,” he says–and it’s full of DNA. To gauge how many pandas are prowling Wanglang, he spent much of 2003 and 2004 combing the area for precious panda droppings. His zeal almost got him killed–in 2004, he slipped and broke his spine and had to endure a bumpy 400-kilometer ride to a hospital in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. He was not paralyzed, however, and returned to work after a 3-month-long convalescence.

Panda experts agree that the species needs all the help it can get. Tourism and development are nipping at the reserves. Tourists leave garbage, and villagers lay traps for game animals that inadvertently snare pandas. One wildlife NGO, Conservation International, is testing a new community-based conservation model that will give villagers financial incentives to protect panda habitat outside the reserves. Three villages abutting Wanglang have signed on, and negotiations are under way to add 100 more sites in the next 3 years.

The central government, too, is taking action. Its Wildlife Conservation Protection Program seeks to bring 90% of wild pandas under the reserve system, from 75% today. In the 1980s, there were fewer than 20 reserves for pandas. Now there are 60.

Down from the mountain, Chuckie’s monitoring team encounters a pair of blue-eared pheasants, their most dramatic wildlife sighting all day. No black-and-white bamboo eaters–but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, he says. It means the pandas are somewhere in the highlands, deep in the bamboo forest, and safe from humans for another day.

Dispatch from China: Tracking and playing with pandas (part 1 of 2)

On a single-lane dirt road wending between misty crags deep in Sichuan Province, traffic has slowed to a crawl. Hundreds of dump trucks and steamrollers are expanding the only road to Wolong Nature Reserve into a modern freeway. Conservation biologist George Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City was the first Westerner to study giant pandas in China when he came to Wolong, about 500 kilometers southwest of Wanglang, in 1980.

Now, more than 100,000 tourists every year flock to Wolong, the country’s most famous panda reserve, to see its 120 captive-bred pandas, the largest such population in the world.

On a March afternoon, there are so many pandas in the “kindergarten pen” here that it’s hard to keep track of their antics. One is attempting a handstand while three others are playing king of the hill. These carefree cubs, a record 19 from Wolong’s breeding season, are part of the dramatic comeback for a symbol of conservation: the giant panda.
The toddlers may one day follow Xiangxiang, the first captive panda released into the wild in April 2006, as part of the campaign to prop up the wild population, estimated at 1,600 in 2001. China’s central government has increased the number of reserves from 13 a decade ago to 59 this year, with two to three coming online every year. The reserves cover 50% of the panda’s habitat and 75% of the population. The government has also banned logging of natural forests and started a “Grain for Green” campaign to encourage farmers to restore the native habitat.

Wolong will soon build a new captive breeding facility that can house 300 pandas, a goal that would ensure the survival of the captive population for 100 years and maintain 95% of its genetic diversity.

Almost two-thirds of captive panda births each year happen at Wolong, thanks to the reserve’s obsession with perfecting artificial insemination over the last 15 years and discovering in 2000 how to keep twins alive by removing one of them from the mother.

A decade ago, the captive birth of a single cub would cause a huge media sensation. Back then, if a mother bore twins, she would invariably abandon one and raise the other. In 2000, breeders figured out how to raise twins by allowing one cub at a time to stay with the mother and raising the other by hand. They frequently swap cubs so both learn survival lessons from mom. Now Wolong is trying to outdo last year’s record number of births by artificial insemination.

The reintroduction campaign took a serious hit recently when a rival male badly injured Xiangxiang. Because of his mild manners from a captive upbringing, he has been having a difficult time fitting in with the wild crowd. And earlier, rangers lost track of him when his GPS battery died.

The size of that population, it turns out, is a bit controversial. One Chinese research team recently published a study claiming the population might be double the estimate of 1998’s Third National Survey. Using DNA fingerprints collected from fresh feces, they were able to identify 66 individuals in a key reserve. The Third National Survey found just 27 in 1998.

If this controversial study turns out to be accurate, pandas would be off the international list of endangered species. But perhaps they’re not out of the woods–or shall we say bamboo forest–yet. Read part 2 tomorrow to find out why, as I go panda tracking with a Chinese guy named Chuckie.