Monday, April 09, 2018

Stayin' Alive! Camp Panda: Helping Cubs Return to the Wild by Catherine Thimmesh

Teeny-tiny panda cub Tao Tao--weigh in a approximately 4 ounces (1/900th the size of his mother)--was born in August of 2010, in a semi-wild training enclosure, delivered by his mama, Cao Cao, with no human intervention. Tao Tao was the first captive cub born naturally, just as he would have been in the wild, showcasing right from the git-go a significant change in the three-stage change training program.

Wild pandas are endangered, on the brink of extinction; in their natural range in China, only a tiny fraction of its original area remains because of encroachment of human activity which destroys their habitat. Despite their robust size, pandas don't have the resiliency of animals like raccoons, rabbits, and kangaroos, which adapt to living near humans easily. Pandas are big, required to eat eighteen hours a day to maintain their weight, but their diet is mostly limited to bamboo. Pandas reproduce infrequently, raising only one cub at a time, and cubs grow up slowly, requiring close care and teaching by their mothers for a couple of years. This lack of resiliency means that survival of their species now depends on reintroduction to the wild by cubs born in captivity, but even healthy cubs raised with the help of humans have had a hard time surviving in the wild.

"Reintroductions... are not guaranteed to work. But most of the time, the alternative of doing nothing means extinction."

But Cao Cao was lucky; he was one of the first cubs to be brought up only by his mother in a large protected area with minimal exposure to humans. For that, at Panda Camp the "counselors" get to play dress-up.

Now--as if it were Halloween or a day at a Disney theme park--the team don their panda suits whenever the enter the enclosure to deliver bamboo. Alas, they can't play with the huggable, lovable cub, not even when he becomes irresistible as he learns to run and roll about playfully. The caretakers weren't particularly comfortable in the heavy, hot panda suits. And they stank! Panda poo and pee were rubbed all over their fur so they'll smell like a panda."

With only about 1,864 pandas left in the wild, Cao Cao is an important graduate of Camp Panda. Not only is he part of the work to restore a healthy population of his species, but giant pandas themselves are an "umbrella species," one whose habitat preservation also works for other endangered animals, in the case of southeastern China, the snow leopard, the snub-nosed monkey, and the red panda.

Catherine Thimmesh's Camp Panda: Helping Cubs Return to the Wild (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018) offers students an engrossing study of how animal scientists work to save some of the planet's most important endangered species. Author Thimmesh, winner of the American Library Association's prestigious Sibert Award for informational books for young people, takes vicarious happy campers along to spend some time at Camp Panda as specialists from China and other nations work together to help preserve this signature animal, the giant panda, a worldwide symbol for the rescue of a threatened species.

Filled with charming color photos of this most appealing animal and written in an easy-going but informative style, with solid backmatter for the middle reader environmentalist--glossary, bibliography, and index--and with a useful section, "Stepping Up to Save a Species--What Can You Do?" this informal but informative book offers much for the curious animal lover and young research report writer alike.

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