In China, Panda Mating Season Breeds Hope

Andrew Paterson and Patty Kim
National Geographic Today
April 29, 2003
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This spring, panda researchers in China are closely watching Da Shuang, a five-year-old female panda.

If Da Shuang is ready to mate, she'll show signs like scent-marking, restlessness and characteristic bleating sounds.

Researchers also monitor Da Shuang's urine for signs that she is ovulating. Females can conceive just once a year, for only three days.

Da Shuang lives at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, a zoological research center outside Chengdu, in the central Chinese province of Sichuan.

The Chengdu Base has 32 resident pandas—one of the highest concentrations of pandas anywhere. Pandas, perhaps the world's most coveted animals, are also among the most endangered.

"In the past, Chinese people did not pay much attention to animals or the environment," says Hu Jin Chu, a zoologist at the Chengdu Base who is known as "the father of panda research."

"But now with all the economic growth the society is learning a lot about nature, especially the kids … who like pandas very much because they are from China."

The Chengdu Base, in addition to its scientific mission, is open to the public and has become one of China's premier tourist attractions.

Only about 1,000 pandas remain in the wild. Panda range once extended from eastern and southern China into North Vietnam and Myanmar.

A Frozen Generation—A Panda Sperm Bank

But habitat loss and human encroachment have limited the wild panda population to about 30 wilderness reserves primarily within the Sichuan province.

Zhang Zhihe, a genetics specialist and the director of Chengdu Base, is marshaling scientific resources to help grow the panda population, cub by hard-won cub.

Among the challenges: Even if Da Shuang is ready to mate, the male's performance is not guaranteed.

Males in captivity either show a serious lack of interest or are incompatible with the females and become aggressive.

When natural mating fails, researchers may try artificial insemination with frozen sperm.

At Chengdu, Zhang's team can draw on the largest giant panda sperm bank in the world—samples from 17 animals are represented here, including one that died 12 years ago.

Zhang's technicians also freeze the cells of giant pandas in liquid nitrogen for a genomic databank that allows the researchers to track parentage and ensure genetic diversity of any future population.

China holds about 130 pandas in captivity. The three largest panda centers are Chengdu, the Beijing Zoo and Wolong.

China and the United States are collaborating closely on developing genetic profiles for the captive population.

"The goal is to establish a meta-population" in which the populations at the three centers could share genes, says David Wildt, head of reproductive sciences at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington.

Raising Twins

"Sharing genes keeps the panda population vigorous. If the sharing doesn't happen soon then each institution will start mating relatives (causing inbreeding), and that won't be good."

Artificial insemination may save the captive breeding program. Success rates continue to improve, says Zhang, and so do the cubs' chances of survival.

Two decades ago the Chengdu base started with only five captive-born pandas. Since then, 50 litters have produced 78 cubs—44 of them have survived.

Seven months ago today, three pandas were born in Chengdu.

All the world's science, however, can't guarantee the survival of a newborn. About 60 percent of the time, pandas give birth to twins but the mother cares for one and abandons the other completely.

"Only one survives," Zhang says. "We guess this is a form of natural selection."

But at Chengdu, veterinarians have mastered a way to save them both. They stealthily take one newborn, place it in an incubator and feed it with a bottle of formula.

Later on, when the mother is asleep, a caretaker snatches the cub and replaces it with another.

"I've seen them do it," Wildt says. "The mother doesn't even wake up—it's amazing."

One day, Chengdu hopes to expand with space for a halfway house that will help the pandas return to the wild.

First the researchers need 60 to 80 pandas on hand. That means at least several more years of breeding pandemonium.

Meanwhile all eyes are on Da Shuang.

Tonight on National Geographic Today: While there are many around the world who are deeply concerned with the future of giant pandas, the Chengdu Research Base is the site of one of the most successful efforts in all of China to raise them. Take an inside look at this captive breeding program as National Geographic Today correspondent Patty Kim reports from a reserve where giant pandas are raised in captivity to ultimately be reintroduced into the wild. (Click here to learn more.)

Tomorrow: The most crucial conservation efforts for pandas take place inside and outside of China's cities and villages. In its schools, efforts to educate the Chinese are essential and begin at an early age. See what lessons kindergartners are learning about endangered species and the importance of conservation. And, out in the forests of China, there is another critical link in conservation efforts: large reforestation programs with the goal of improving the future for many of China's most endangered species.

Thursday: Planning a trip halfway around the world takes careful planning, especially when the travelers are two giant pandas! National Geographic Today takes you behind the scenes as Le Le and Ya Ya get ready to head from China to their new home at the Memphis Zoo. Get an inside look at what logistics, veterinary care, and potential complications must be tended to when undertaking such an incredible feat. And, talk about precious cargo! Join National geographic Today correspondent Patty Kim and her crew as they climb aboard a FedEx plane with two 150-pound (70-kilogram) giant pandas for an exclusive look at how these beautiful creatures traveled to their new home at the Memphis Zoo—one that bears a striking resemblance to their Chinese habitat. With the only television crew to travel with these giant creatures, National Geographic Today brings you exceptional coverage of this amazing journey.

Additional Resources on Pandas:

Creature Feature—Pandas (Fun Facts, Video, Audio, Map, Postcards): Go>>

Panda Chow (Online Game): Go>>

NG Book: The Little Panda (Windows on Literacy): Go>>

Animals & Nature Guide: Go>>

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