Q&A with panda expert Dr Jake Owens

  Last updated June 14, 2018 at 11:53 am

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Conservation biologist Dr Jake Owens features in the newest IMAX original documentary film, Pandas 3D. We asked him about pandas, conservation, and the film.


Credit: IMAX


Pandas are one of the world’s most captivating animals. Their elusive, vulnerable status and plight is very well-known by the public and their adorable demeanour is revered by both the young and old.


Conservation biologists have been working with pandas for decades through intensive breeding programs and introducing cubs into the wild to ensure their survival.


One of the most famous panda research institutions in the world is the Chengdu Panda Base in China. To date, they have successfully bred 113 captive pandas. But the next stage is to release them into the wild.


This sets the scene for the latest IMAX original documentary film Pandas 3D which follows the journey of one very curious female cub named Qian Qian (pronounced ‘Chen-Chen’) who was born at the base.


The film shows the international effort required in conserving pandas with cross-culture collaboration between Chinese and American experts. Hong Rou is one of the world’s leading experts on pandas, leading the research team at Chengdu. She reaches out to American conservation biologist, Dr Jake Owens, who travels to China to work with the giant pandas for four years. Together they collaborate with Ben Kilham, a black bear expert who reintroduced cubs into the wild in rural New Hampshire, with hopes to apply his methods to panda cubs.


This documentary was several years in the making. Filming in China occurred over two, several-week long periods in the summer of 2017. Several filming sessions happened over a number of years in New Hampshire to capture Ben Kilham and the black bears.


We spoke to Jake Owens about pandas, conservation, and the film. He recently visited Melbourne for special Q&A screenings at IMAX Melbourne.


What do you love about pandas?


As a scientist I am drawn towards animals that are rare, elusive, and difficult to study. Pandas live in some of the most difficult habitat I’ve ever worked in. The bamboo forests are dense, the terrain is steep and treacherous, and pandas are really good at avoiding humans. As a result, there is still a lot about the natural history of pandas that we don’t understanding that well and there are a lot of misconceptions about them. I love the challenges that exist in working with species like this.


On a more personal level, I love the array of unique personalities that pandas have. Pandas are very intelligent and display a range of qualities that we can relate to. I think I identify most with the pandas that are a bit crafty, independent, and rambunctious, but they are also the most difficult to work with.


The Chengdu Research Base is world-renowned for their work. What is the most amazing thing about their facilities to you?


The Chengdu Research Base is a fantastic place to work. I am fortunate to be part of a large staff that care deeply about their work and prioritise the well-being of the animals under their care. The management constantly strives to improve the facilities based on the best practices from around the globe; they are incredibly collaborative and wonderful people.


My favorite enclosures are those that are so densely vegetated with trees and shrubs that the pandas can disappear from view if they want. They do an excellent job of balancing the needs of the animals while entertaining and educating the visitors who come to see them.


Conservation doesn’t work in a silo. What did you learn from experts like Ben Kilham and Hou Rong?


During my career I’ve been extremely fortunate to train with some of the most exceptional researchers and conservation biologists, including Ben Kilham and Hou Rong.


Ben has a very unique way of viewing the world, particularly the behaviour and social interactions of animals. He is a world-class naturalist, and can pick up the subtle intricacies of wildlife that people often overlook. Most importantly, Ben has decades of personal daily experience observing, rehabilitating, and releasing American black bears, which is extremely valuable and applicable to the development of our giant panda release program.


Hou Rong is a preeminent expert on giant pandas and has dedicated her life to studying and conserving the species. She has been a leading figure in the research, husbandry, and ex situ conservation activities of giant pandas for the past 24 years. Hou Rong has an immense amount of knowledge about giant pandas, especially regarding their care, genetics, reproduction, and behaviour. She also knows the ins-and-outs of developing and managing large programs and working with the Chinese government and international partners.


I take every opportunity I can to learn as much as possible from Ben, Hou Rong, and other experts, to be the most capable and effective conservation biologist I can be.


Hou Rong and Jake Owens. Credit: IMAX


What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve learnt about pandas? Did your views as a conservation biologist change in anyway? 


I think the most surprising thing I’ve learned about giant pandas from working with them is how intelligent they are. I didn’t think pandas were “dumb” or anything like that, which I’ve heard people say of them, but it’s not until you work with them one on one, and see how quickly they can learn and problem solve, that you begin to understand how smart they really are.


Can you comment about the human impact on pandas and their environment? How have they (not) adapted to changes in environment?


As is the case with most species, humans have had both negative and positive impacts on giant pandas. The negative impacts began long ago, when human activities expanded into the habitats that pandas rely on, and hunting pressure and natural resource exploitation increased. As logging reduced old-growth forests, roads, reservoirs and cities divided the remaining habitat and panda populations living within them. These and other human activities rapidly expanded during the 20th century, leading to the recognition of their rarity and increasing likelihood of extinction roughly 50 years ago.


Following this recognition, humans began working to positively impact giant pandas. Numerous groups, including the Chinese government, academic institutes, and NGO’s from around the globe have worked together to improve the conservation status of giant pandas. Early steps included developing a healthy captive population that would ensure the existence of the species should they go extinct in the wild. I also believe that the publicity and education that stemmed from this captive population has been critical to panda conservation in the wild. It’s much easier to devote public funding and resources to conserving a species if people develop a strong attachment to it, and I see that happen every day with people who visit the Chengdu Panda Base. In the wild, hunting has been outlawed and steep punishments given to poachers, so that practice has largely been eradicated.


Today there is a massive push to increase the quality, connectivity and area of habitat available to pandas. The development of a new Giant Panda National Park, which will connect most of the existing panda populations in an area more than three times Yellowstone National Park in the USA, is a huge step forward in this effort.


The release of captive born individuals, which is the focus of IMAX PANDAS 3D, is another step towards improving the long-term conservation outlook for the species. So, while there have been significant negative impacts from humans on pandas, many of which remain today, there is also a strong effort aimed at ensuring giant pandas exist for the long term.


Before humans disrupted their environment, pandas would have been able to counter environmental disturbances by moving to new areas that met their requirements. In addition to providing alternate habitat, high connectivity between panda populations meant that individuals could interbreed freely, thereby increasing their genetic diversity and making them more capable of quickly adapting to environmental changes. That isn’t the case today, which is why we are so concerned about the impacts of climate change on pandas. The rate that the environment is expected to change is faster than what most species have evolved to respond. That is why it is critically important that we take every step possible today to make giant panda populations and their available habitat as robust and connected as possible.


What are the conservation goals for pandas? It’d be wonderful to have their future secured and one day taken off the threatened species list but is there a particular milestone or goal for wild pandas?


Our ultimate goal is to see giant pandas moved to “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. That would give us a good indication that they were secure for the foreseeable future.


In 2016, they were downlisted from “Endangered” to “Vulnerable,” which is a very positive step towards that goal. However, as it says in the 2016 assessment, there are still numerous threats to giant pandas; the most concerning is that climate change is predicted to eliminate their bamboo habitat by more than 35% in the next 70 years.


To survive the coming centuries, giant pandas need land, resources, and large connected populations. Completion of the Giant Panda National Park will be a major milestone towards this effort. Another would be to see continued growth in the total population size, genetic diversity, and occupied area of pandas in surveys conducted over the next few decades. The efforts to release captive born pandas will help to ensure this occurs.


A significant personal goal is to see our captive release program mature to the point where we can consistently introduce new individuals into the wild that reproduce throughout their lives and contribute to the wild populations they have joined.





Were there any specific precautions around filming the pandas?


Absolutely. Our number one priority while filming was always the pandas. Everyone involved with the film spent a lot of time discussing how to minimise disturbance and ensure the pandas safety. Some of the pandas they filmed were actively being prepared for release into the wild, so we always erred on the side of caution and canceled shots that we thought had the potential to disrupt their preparation. Fortunately, the IMAX crew are highly experienced working in these conditions and with rare and protected species, and they were as vigilant in this as I was.


It’s also important to keep in mind that pandas are bears, with large claws, crushing teeth, and an incredible capacity for destruction. Filming the larger pandas, especially Qian Qian (the main panda in the film), was primarily done using remotely controlled cameras which enabled the director and operators to remain outside the enclosure or hide well away. We also limited the filming crew to the absolute minimum. There were actually a few times I had to help move the camera to get a shot.


Were there any off-screen moments – funny or otherwise – that didn’t make the film?


Enough for another film I would guess. There are certainly several more hours of Xiao Bi (my colleague who is also in the film) and me getting scratched and chewed on by cubs that would qualify. These kinds of IMAX films are intended for museum and science centre theatres, so their run time is roughly 40 minutes. Because of that, they had to edit out a ton of footage to focus the story as much as possible on a few of our team members and key events in Qian Qian’s life to date.


In the film there is a 30 second scene where I’m practicing jiu-jitsu in Chengdu. We filmed there all day, and I know some of my friends and family would pay to see the rest of the footage. I spent most of that day being tapped out by my friend Julie, who weighs a good 30 kg less than me and is way better at jiu-jitsu. The crew were laughing at my expense the whole time, I’m not sure if they actually needed to film so long or if they were just messing with me. The producer, writer, and co-director of PANDAS 3D, Drew Fellman, tried it out himself and she quickly put him into a choke, but I give him credit for trying.


What do you hope people take away from the film?


Drew Fellman (director) has said he hopes the film helps people understand that conservation isn’t just an idea, it’s difficult work physically done by dedicated people working around the globe. I like that. We need a constant flow of hardworking, caring, capable young people to join the fight to save biodiversity, so I hope that this film generates a spark in some of those who see it. I also hope that the viewers see the connections that exist between us all, whether Chinese or American, or even giant panda or black bear.


Conservation is global, we work together to achieve common goals and apply lessons from one species to another. In that process I’ve built strong, lasting friendships, for which I am extremely grateful. The world isn’t as divided as some believe, and I think that this film, and conservation in general, is a good example of that.


PANDAS 3D will be shown exclusively at IMAX Melbourne from 7 June.


Tickets are on sale now at imaxmelbourne.com.au with new sessions released weekly.


Related:


Panda Watch


Charismatic animals are suffering too




About the Author

Kelly Wong
Contributing editor for News + Events and the online producer at Australia's Science Channel. I have a background in immunology, food blogging, volunteering, and social media. I'm passionate about creating communities on social media and getting them excited about science. I enjoy good food and I am on an eternal mission to find the best ice cream. Find me on Twitter @kellyyyllek

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Science and technology is as much a part of our cultural fabric as art, music, theatre and literature. They play a significant role in our daily lives, yet, in a world dependent on science, we often take them for granted. Australia’s Science Channel believes every citizen has a right, and a responsibility, to be informed, and our mission is to create programs to bring that about.


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