In July 2013, a panda was born at the Taipei Zoo in Taiwan, which was undertaking its first-ever panda breeding project. While the staff was busy looking after the mother, Yuan Yuan, and the cub, Yuan Zhai, they also had another important task: making sure people heard the good news.
This is part of an emerging necessity for conservation efforts—combining public interest in zoos’ work with information on what still threatens the survival of species in the wild. In the past three years, the Taipei city government and the Taipei Zoo have been mastering this skill.
The tasks of caring for the pandas and promoting conservation required a skill set that might sound surprisingly familiar to project practitioners: planning, risk management, problem-solving, stakeholder management and multiple resource application.
The team faced its first unexpected challenge just six hours after the birth: Yuan Zhai suffered a serious leg wound. The staff immediately separated the cub from the mother and placed Yuan Zhai in an incubator.
Just as importantly, they gave Yuan Yuan a panda cub doll. This had been prepared in case of such an eventuality. Sounds from Yuan Zhai were transmitted to a speaker in the doll’s stomach so Yuan Yuan could continue to hear her cub's voice. The team hoped that the cub’s cries and happier noises would keep Yuan Yuan interested in the fate of the doll—and her real daughter.
The main tasks for the cub’s caretakers included keeping her warm, monitoring her temperature, treating the injury and recording her growth. The mother required not just feeding, but also milking, massaging and postnatal care.
The small, vulnerable, cute cub attracted huge attention. Initially she drew 200,000 daily visits to the Taipei Zoo’s website, a number that eventually rose to 2 million.
Yuan Zhai was successfully returned to her mother when the leg injury healed. With this success, the Taipei city government realized it could exploit immense public interest for its own conservation projects. It put together a campaign that linked the panda breeding project to local conservation and ecology projects.
In this way, two pandas could be used to “speak” on behalf of all wildlife. This is what environmental activists had been campaigning for: a holistic, balanced picture of wildlife conservation, not just a narrow focus on one species.