During his 30-year career as a reproductive biologist who specializes in rescuing threatened animal species from demise, David E. Wildt ’72 has used his high-tech scientific skills to help save such exotic creatures as the Florida panther and the black-footed ferret of the American Great Plains.
But Wildt’s greatest challenge—and the biggest thrill of his extraordinary life as a globe-trotting scientist—took place in the mountains of Southwestern China, where he worked with Chinese colleagues to bring the world’s last few remaining giant pandas back from the edge of extinction.
It was a moment that world-renowned reproductive biologist Wildt will never forget. The date was December 10, 1996, and the place was a chilly room located in the heart of Southwestern China’s Sichuan Province.
“I remember walking into this conference center in Chengdu City and finding more than 50 Chinese scientists gathered there,” the 62-year-old biology researcher said when recalling his startling introduction to the threatened world of the giant panda.
“I was visiting Chengdu with several other American scientists under the umbrella of the world famous Conservation Breeding Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. We had been invited to brainstorm why giant pandas were not thriving in breeding centers and why the species continued to struggle,” Wildt said.
“The conference room was already full of excited and enthusiastic Chinese researchers,” Wildt recalled, “and at first glance, the scene looked very promising. We were all very eager to begin what we knew would be a marathon quest to keep these magnificent animals from disappearing forever.”
David E. Wildt ’72 at the Smithsonian’s Cheetah Science Facility, where the cheetah population has increased from two to nearly 20 in less than two years. (Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute of the National Zoological Park)But the ISU animal sciences major found the enthusiasm waned quickly after the Americans discovered to their dismay that only one of the Chinese scientists in the room spoke English.
“Unfortunately, nobody on the American research team spoke Chinese,” Wildt remembered, “which meant communication between the two groups was extremely slow and halting, with lots of uncertainty and frustration on both sides. Looking back, it’s a wonder that we were able to communicate at all—to say nothing about designing and then gradually implementing a major research effort to learn as much as possible about this unique species.”
In spite of the roadblocks, Wildt and his colleagues and their Chinese counterparts were able to pull off one of the greatest achievements in the history of animal species preservation. They turned around a declining population and made it one of the most successful captive breeding success stories for any endangered species ever.
This was accomplished over five years by Wildt and his wife, behavioral biologist Susie Ellis, who co-led an American research team using high-tech methods to determine the health and reproductive ability of more than 60 giant pandas scattered at Chinese breeding centers and zoos.
The lessons learned, combined with sharing modern methods on artificial insemination plus a remarkable persistence, have resulted in panda numbers increasing from only about 100 animals in 1999 to more than 300 today.
The captive population is now ‘self-sustaining’ and will likely soon become the main resource for reintroducing giant pandas to the wild. This is important because most experts estimate that only about 2,000 wild pandas still inhabit the mountainous bamboo forests of China. Their numbers are thought to be dwindling each year as a result of lost and fragmented habitats.
What Wildt and his colleagues managed to accomplish was nothing short of miraculous, according to biology experts, many of whom point out that coaxing the giant panda to reproduce is one of the most formidable challenges in the world of reproductive biology.
Wildt agrees that saving the pandas was “an extremely difficult and time-consuming task, especially when you realize that we had to coordinate the efforts and the research findings of scientists from two countries with such diverse cultures and scientific experiences. But that was only part of the story because we were also up against the fact that female pandas are only fertile for two or three days out of the entire year.”
Females may give birth to two cubs, but usually only one survives. The gestation period is up to 160 days, meaning a wild female can produce young only once every other year. At best she may raise five to eight cubs in her lifetime.
According to the determined Wildt—today with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute of the National Zoological Park—the strategy that saved the pandas was based on two key components.
Tai Shan, just months after birth, is now entering the breeding program in China. (Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute of the National Zoological Park)“For starters, we had to figure out how to internationally transport and then use the many state-of-the-art tools that are now available in the biomedical sciences, first to learn about the species’ basic biology and then to help those pandas that either were unhealthy or unable to reproduce.
“And we also had to find ways to bring together these experts (veterinarians, reproductive biologists, behaviorists, nutritionists, geneticists, animal husbandmen) from the two different cultures, getting them to work together as an effective team,” Wildt said.
“In many ways, the administrative aspects of this kind of international collaboration are even tougher than the science—and we really struggled at times to put all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together. But you know working together over the anesthetized body of a giant panda, one of the most beloved animals on the planet, really brings people together. Now some of our best and dearest friends are these Chinese colleagues who have contributed so much to panda conservation.”
The work is more than Wildt could have envisioned given his humble start. Born and raised on an Illinois farm near Chandlerville, (current population: 553), he grew up on the land. He was feeding cattle and hogs and helping to harvest fall corn by the age of 7.
“We were a John Deere family, for sure,” he remembered with a smile of nostalgia, “and my brother and I were deep into the FFA (Future Farmers of America) while taking our cows and pigs to competitions sponsored by the local 4-H Club.
“Farming was at the center of our lives. My grandfather, Bud Wildt, actually died while sitting on his old John Deere ‘A’ one afternoon. That tractor now sits in my own barn here in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia,” Wildt said.
“I loved everything having to do with farm animals. By the time I got to ISU in the fall of 1968, I knew that animal science within the Department of Agriculture was where I wanted to be.”
After moving into room 1049 of Manchester Hall, Wildt started taking classes in animal husbandry and agriculture, along with a slew of science courses in chemistry, biology, and physiology. Within a couple of semesters he was “extremely fortunate” to be studying under mentors who inspired him throughout his career: ISU agriculture professors Clarence Moore, James Thompson, and Al Culver.
“Those guys were legends in animal science, and it wasn’t long before I got turned on by the way they really cared about their students and the animals they were studying,” Wildt said. “That was an exciting time for me, and my eyes were opening up to a lot of new things.”
He received his bachelor’s in 1972 and went on to earn a Ph.D. in animal science and physiology at Michigan State. Wildt spent the next few years working at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He had his first opportunity to work at a zoo—the nearby Houston Zoo—where he became fascinated with research opportunities with wildlife.
Wildt works at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, a 3,200-acre site in Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute of the National Zoological Park)In 1979, Wildt began working as a biomedical researcher at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, but spent many weekends doing small research projects at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington. A job opened there in 1983. Since then he has gained international recognition for developing one of the world’s most effective research programs in reproductive physiology and species survival, including modern technologies that can be used to protect environmentally threatened species.
Wildt authored the now-classic work on species survival, Giant Pandas: Biology, Veterinary Medicine and Management. He has also published more than 290 scientific journal articles in his specialty, along with 40 book chapters. The knowledge shared comes from having spent more than 25 years running reproductive biology-research programs at the National Zoo and now its Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI).
Today Wildt directs the Institute’s Center for Species Survival, which is located at the main SCBI facility near Front Royal, Virginia. This 3,200-acre operation supports regional ecological studies, as well as research and breeding for almost 30 endangered species.
Besides supervising a group of 25 scientists, post-doctoral researchers, and grad students, Wildt also directs another 20 staff who are curators and keepers of SCBI’s rare animals, ranging from scimitar-horned oryx to clouded leopards and Asian cranes.
Along with saving the giant pandas, Wildt’s team has been credited with helping to protect many other threatened species, including the cheetah, the Florida panther, and the black-footed ferret. Once believed to be extinct, the ferret has made a major comeback as a result of captive breeding. Wildt’s operation has produced more than 600 black-footed ferrets, including more than 140 by artificial insemination, with some of these now reintroduced onto the plains of the American West.
Describing his career, the tireless researcher/administrator points out that he’s been very fortunate as a scientist. “My real passion, going all the way back to Illinois State, has been studying the basic biology of animals, especially how they differ from one another.
“When I think about my job today, I realize that I’m one of the luckiest guys I know,” says the affable and down-to-earth scientist. “The Smithsonian is a great American treasure which has a strong commitment to biodiversity conservation. That means they’ve been willing to commit major resources to saving species, and I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of that.
“When I reflect on the opportunity I was given to work on protecting an iconic species like the giant panda, I just say ‘Wow!’ As a guy who’s always loved working with animals, it’s been one heck of a ride.”
DON’T BE FOOLED BY THE GIANT PANDA’S LOOK
At first glance, they seem lovably cute.
Outfitted by Mother Nature with jet-black eye patches and tons of fluffy-white fur, the giant pandas are the unchallenged superstars of the zoo world.
You wouldn’t want to mess with one, however.
That’s because your typical adult male giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) stands five or six feet tall, weighs about 250 pounds, and owns a set of brutally powerful teeth designed to crunch through the leathery stalks of bamboo on which these legendary forest creatures usually feed.
“Pandas are quite cute, of course, and most zoo-goers love to watch them,” said the National Zoo’s Dave Wildt. “But it’s important to remember that they’re still bears. They’re extremely powerful animals, and can be dangerous if they feel they’re being threatened by humans.”
Although they once roamed across large swaths of Asia, the endangered panda population is these days restricted to a few mountain ranges in Central and Western China. Most bear experts believe there are no more than about 2,000 giant pandas now living in the wild, with another 300 or so inhabiting zoos and breeding centers in China and elsewhere around the world.
Like most bears, the typical panda enjoys a healthy appetite and can easily put away 40 to 50 pounds of fresh bamboo during a typical day of mountain foraging. Pandas in the wild generally live into their early twenties, but a few of the zoo-kept bears have been known to reach the ripe old age of 35.