National Zoo Desperately Seeks Bamboo

Giant pandas snack on bamboo i i

hide captionThe National Zoo's bamboo supply is dwindling partially because the youngest panda, 3-year-old Tai Shan, is eating as much as an adult. The three giant pandas are offered up to 400 pounds of bamboo daily.

Ann Batdorf/Smithsonian's National Zoo
Giant pandas snack on bamboo

The National Zoo's bamboo supply is dwindling partially because the youngest panda, 3-year-old Tai Shan, is eating as much as an adult. The three giant pandas are offered up to 400 pounds of bamboo daily.

Ann Batdorf/Smithsonian's National Zoo
Mike Maslanka drags shoots of bamboo from a stand in Front Royal, Va. i i

hide captionMike Maslanka, head nutritionist at the National Zoo, drags shoots of bamboo from a stand in Front Royal, Va. The stand was one of the last sources of bamboo for the zoo, and last week was completely cleared out.

Brian Reed/NPR
Mike Maslanka drags shoots of bamboo from a stand in Front Royal, Va.

Mike Maslanka, head nutritionist at the National Zoo, drags shoots of bamboo from a stand in Front Royal, Va. The stand was one of the last sources of bamboo for the zoo, and last week was completely cleared out.

Brian Reed/NPR
A pile of harvested bamboo i i

hide captionMaslanka estimates that this is about three-quarters of the amount of bamboo his team harvests for the pandas each day.

Brian Reed/NPR
A pile of harvested bamboo

Maslanka estimates that this is about three-quarters of the amount of bamboo his team harvests for the pandas each day.

Brian Reed/NPR

Most homeowners who battle bamboo in their yards know it to be a tenacious and exasperating opponent — quick to take over and almost impossible to eradicate.

Some species of the giant grass can grow 2 feet in a day. Yet somehow the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is experiencing the opposite problem — a bamboo shortage that has forced the zoo to ask local homeowners for help.

Mike Maslanka, the zoo's head nutritionist, says that with three giant pandas to feed, not a day goes by that he doesn't deal with bamboo. There's a mantra written on his team's flatbed truck: "The Bamboo Never Stops." But it seems now that it will.

"We are finishing this stand off today," Maslanka says, surveying one of several bamboo stands at the zoo's Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va. "We've been cutting on this for seven or eight months, cutting once every couple of weeks. We have managed to make it through all the green stuff."

Almost every day, Maslanka and his team cut down enough of the green stuff to fill their small flatbed. This year, Maslanka says he needed more bamboo because the youngest panda, 3-year-old Tai Shan, is eating as much as an adult. But now they've harvested so much that they're on the verge of running out.

"We would've expected there to be more, larger stems that grew back, and instead we have a bunch that comes up to our chins and is real bushy, but isn't real tall," he says. "That works for some animals in the park, but the pandas tend to prefer a little bit larger, mature product."

As it turns out, grocery shopping for pandas is grueling work. The stalks are long and awkward to carry. There are pointy stumps all over the ground, and they jab the soles of your feet. And if it's a blustery day, the wind can catch the bamboo like a sail and pull you with it. Maslanka says cutting bamboo is widely regarded as one of the zoo's most demanding jobs.

"On any given day, those pandas are going through 300, 350 pounds, 400 pounds of product at least of what's going into their exhibit," he says. "You're talking a fair number of stems on a daily basis."

So last week, the zoo sent out a plea. They asked landowners in the Washington, D.C., area with at least an acre of bamboo to let them harvest it. Within 24 hours, Maslanka got more than 70 responses.

Mary Sullivan and Kara Danner were two of the first callers. Both are from Northern Virginia, and both are weary from battling the prolific bamboo in their yards.

"If the zoo needs it, I am happy for them to have it," Sullivan says. "It will grow back in my yard. It is a force majeure."

Danner says she hates the bamboo and that no matter what she tries, she can't get rid of it.

"It never stops!" she says. "One summer, we spent a full 40-hour workweek just cutting bamboo in my yard and trying to haul it away. It didn't help."

So why isn't the zoo's bamboo growing back? According to Kurt Bluemel, a horticulturist and commercial bamboo grower for nearly 50 years, even though the grass is notorious for spreading quickly, it can still be overharvested. Bluemel's advice: Give the grass a few seasons to rejuvenate.

"It's a misunderstood plant," he says. "Bamboo can be very invasive, but if you really depend on the growth of the bamboo, then you might have to rethink this whole process of cultivating it."

Maslanka says he does plan to eventually research what happened so that he can prevent future shortages. But before he does that, he has to find enough bamboo to get three ravenous pandas through the winter.

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