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Friday, 24 December, 1999, 09:32 GMT
Clone hope to save panda

By China specialist James Miles

Researchers are studying the possibility of cloning the giant panda in an effort to save the animal from extinction.

In the summer, they succeeded in producing a panda embryo using an egg from a rabbit.

But the technology has aroused some controversy in China and it may yet prove difficult to use cloning to produce a live panda.

Finding a way of ensuring the panda's survival will be one of the top priorities for Chinese wildlife experts in the coming century - the animal is the country's most treasured living symbol as well of one of the most difficult to breed.

When China announced in June that it had successfully produced a giant panda embryo using cloning technology, it was declared that a critical breakthrough might have been achieved in efforts to save the species.

Chinese scientists said they believed they were on target to create the world's first cloned panda within three years.

Host animal

But there are sceptics in China, not to mention critics of this line of research.

One obvious problem will be finding a host animal capable of supporting a cloned panda embryo. The difference in size and gestation period between a rabbit and a panda means a rabbit is almost certainly an unsuitable surrogate mother.

Female pandas have difficulty enough carrying their own cubs to term, so the Chinese experts are trying to find other hosts.

This will be an arduous task - scientists elsewhere have achieved only limited success so far in this kind of cross-species cloning.

Good year

One prominent scientist at Beijing University, Pan Wenshi, has criticised the research, which is being sponsored by the Chinese Government.

Professor Pan says it could divert resources away from research into more natural methods of preserving the panda.

Ironically, even as China announced its cloning breakthrough, pandas were enjoying an unusually good year. Some 20 cubs have been born in captivity in the last 12 months and most of them are still alive.

The official Chinese media says this is because of a breakthrough in artificial breeding techniques, but have given no further details.

The World Wide Fund for Nature says fears that the panda would not survive long into the millennium are disappearing, not least thanks to a recent ban on logging in the animals' native habitat.

The international conservation group says its now confident that panda can survive in the wild.

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See also:
23 Aug 99 |  Sci/Tech
Panda triplet cub dies
24 Jul 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Oldest captive panda dies
22 Jun 99 |  Sci/Tech
Panda clone could save species
06 May 99 |  Asia-Pacific
China plans panda theme park
21 Jul 98 |  Asia-Pacific
Giant pandas follow Dolly

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