The San Diego Zoo was the first to exhibit Sichuan takins in North America when we received a gift from China of two females in 1987 and the arrival of a male the following year. The first Sichuan takin born outside of China was born here in 1989. In addition to Sichuan takins, the Zoo also had a breeding herd of Mishmi takins for many years, and the first Mishmi takin born in the New World was born here in 1993. Most takins now living at other zoos in North America came from San Diego.
Today, our takin herd lives in the Zoo’s Panda Trek, which opened in 2011, right next to our giant pandas—a fitting location, since takins and giant pandas share the same habitat in China. Takins are sturdy and strong, and it can be challenging to find enrichment “toys” that can take a beating. Barrels make of extra-thick plastic seem to hold up best and are fun for the takins to toss around as they try to get at the tasty treats inside.
Like the giant panda, the Sichuan takin is considered a national treasure in China and has the highest level of legal protection there. India, Bhutan, and China all have laws prohibiting takin hunting, but in spite of their size and defenses, local people hunt takins regularly for their meat, both within and outside protected areas. In fact, human hunters cause most takin deaths. Such poaching is hard to control. Many local people are unaware of the conservation laws that are in place to protect these animals, and in many of these remote areas, there is no enforcement of the laws. Overhunting has resulted in the disappearance of takins in some areas of their range, and recovery is slow.
But the main cause for their declining numbers is the loss of their habitat. Farming, mining, pasture burning, cane and bamboo cutting, and road construction have destroyed large areas of takin habitat. As human populations grow, they encroach on areas occupied by takins. Sometime these activities also fragment the remaining habitat, disrupting migration routes and dividing takin herds. Domestic livestock trample vegetation, compete for food, and transmit diseases to takins.
And a 2010 study of Mishmi takins in the eastern Himalayas suggests that these animals are especially vulnerable to climate change. Declining snowfall and melting glaciers may decrease the growth of alpine grassland and scrub. Ultimately, climate change could alter the existing mix of species in all takins’ habitat. China has given the takin full protection under Chinese law, and two reserves have been created for the protection of Sichuan takins.
San Diego Zoo Global is helping wild takin populations, too. We are one of five members of the Conservation Centers for Species Survival (C2S2), a group devoted to endangered species study, management, and recovery. Collectively, we have significant land holdings, specialized animal facilities, and scientific and management expertise with animals in managed care and in nature. To study the ecology and behavior of the Sichuan takin, C2S2 developed radio-telemetry techniques and fitted radio collars to eight wild takins in the forests of Tangjiahe Nature Reserve, providing information on the animals’ seasonal movements, preferred habitat, and natural behaviors. Such scientific knowledge is critical for developing a long-term conservation and management plan for the species.
The San Diego Zoo's breeding program for takins has been extremely successful, and a number of these offspring now make their home at other North American zoos. The work we do with takins is helping scientists better understand how to help this species in the wild; however, we still have much to learn about this odd-looking yet majestic goat antelope of Asia.