Smithsonian Zoo Opens "Asia Trail" for Pandas

By Lea Terhune
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - It rained on the grand opening of the Fujifilm Giant Panda Habitat and Asia Trail exhibit at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, but that did not bother the pandas. The famous bear family lounged and played in the downpour, enjoying their refurbished home. Tian Tian, the adult male, retreated to the custom grotto in his enclosure, but Mei Xiang and her cub Tai Shan nuzzled each other on the man-made hillside. Then Tai Shan rolled on his back and browsed the bamboo for a snack.

The new panda habitat and Asia Trail are meant to be an experience for the animals and visitors alike, and to help promote conservation worldwide. The head of the National Zoo exhibit and design planning, Susan Ades, told the Washington File, “One of the secrets of the National Zoo is how involved we are in the field of conservation. We have scientists that are working all over the world, especially in Asia, on behalf of endangered species and endangered habitats.” Sharing that story with zoo visitors is an important part of the exhibit, she said.

Panda conservation is a collaborative endeavor between the National Zoo in Washington and its counterparts in China. “We have been doing … a lot of training, a lot of transfer of technology, sharing what we have learned about pandas and conservation biology with our colleagues in China,” said Ades. Similar projects are going on in a number of countries, with other endangered animal populations, such as Asian elephants in Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka. (See related article.)

National Zoo director John Berry told the Washington File that Tai Shan is a living example of the Smithsonian’s pursuit of successful science. It begins with monitoring behaviors and hormone profiles to find the ideal time for mating or artificial insemination. Artificial insemination was a significant breakthrough in panda conservation. In or out of captivity, panda reproduction rates are low. “Ten years ago there were less than 80 pandas in the entire world in captivity … now there are over 200. So it’s been a giant leap forward. That science is being transferred to other species,” Berry said. (See related article.)

“What you see throughout the Asia Trail is a wonderful reflection of science and conservation with the ultimate goal of building healthy population for our children and our grandchildren, so these species may be here for years to come,” he said.

The Asia Trail highlights seven endangered or threatened species: giant pandas, sloth bears, red pandas, clouded leopards, fishing cats, Asian small-clawed otters and Japanese giant salamanders.  Most of the species can be found in China, the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia. The clouded leopard and Japanese giant salamander are new residents, on display in the National Zoo for the first time.

Zoo staff observes animals closely, and those observations influence the design of the enclosures. The pandas’ love of water led to inclusion of a waterfall, pool and stream in their new home. Their preferences also mandated a water-cooled grotto rather than the air-cooled variety in the final plan. 

Education is critical to conservation, and it is built into the Asia Trail exhibit. Interpretive exhibits, such as “Curiosity Stations,” allow visitors to learn about conservation work, and interactive kiosks present the complex issues and challenges faced by conservationists.

Encroachment by human populations on animal habitat is one of those issues. The National Zoo is involved in outreach programs that raise awareness of people living in wildlife range areas.

“If you don’t take care of the local population, there is no conservation,” said Susan Ades. “Part of what we’re working toward is alternative income sources for local villagers, so we’re replacing [the use of] trees for fuel wood with biogas stoves.” She said the National Zoo supports “other organizations that are doing that work on the ground if we’re not doing it directly.” She emphasized, “That’s a message we are working hard to get out to our visitors, that is, if you don’t take care of people, conservation will not happen.”

The construction, research and ongoing conservation programs do not come cheap. Of the $53 million total cost of the project Fujifilm U.S.A. Inc. contributed more than $8 million for giant panda conservation programs.

“Fujifilm is very committed to environmental preservation and sustainability,” Fujifilm Senior Executive Vice President Stanley Freimuth told the Washington File. “We were looking for a way to demonstrate our commitment to the environment. We wanted something very public but also where we could do a lot of good, not just PR.” Coincidentally, the National Zoo was raising funds for the panda project. Pandas are extremely photogenic, and the medical research component was attractive because Fujifilm also has a medical equipment division.

Once the commitment was made, Fujifilm’s involvement expanded. “What started up as a sponsorship ended up being a true partnership,” Freimuth said. Fujifilm donates sophisticated medical and photo equipment, such as digital X-ray technology, and has a place to showcase it at the same time. They also support educational outreach.

The National Zoo, founded in 1889, occupies 66 hectares in the middle of Washington. About 2,000 animals representing 400 species live there.

Additional information, including an opportunity to watch the pandas at play, is available on the National Zoo’s Web site.