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Page last updated at 13:35 GMT, Tuesday, 7 December 2010
Giant panda breeding breakthrough in China
By Ella Davies
Earth News reporter

Panda mother and cub asleep (c) Mihail Moore / AGB Films

A critical breakthrough has been made in efforts to save the giant panda, one that could kick-start attempts to reintroduce the animals to the wild.

Conservationists say they have perfected the difficult task of reproducing pandas, having reached their target of successfully raising 300 of the bears in captivity.

The breakthrough, mainly by scientists at the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Centre, China, should lead to the first panda being reintroduced into the wild within 15 years.

Female pandas are only on heat for 72 hours a year, and can only actually become pregnant during a 12 to 24 hour window during this time.

The revelation comes after documentary makers were given unprecedented access to the research centre to film captive breeding activity over two years.

Just a few thousand wild pandas survive at best, and the species is classified as being Endangered.

In a bid to protect the animal, scientists have attempted to breed captive pandas since the first such cub was born in 1963.

But many obstacles stood in the way of achieving a stable captive panda population.

The first was the very short window of opportunity provided in the panda's natural reproductive cycle.


Pioneering research has overcome the poor sexual performance of captive pandas

Female pandas are only on heat for 72 hours a year, and can only actually become pregnant during a 12 to 24 hour window during this time.

In order to correctly interpret the bears' breeding potential, caring for captive female pandas required close observation including daily urine samples to monitor hormone levels.

Understanding the giant panda's natural patterns of reproduction was only the start of the challenge.

'Turned off'

Despite conservationists' best efforts to encourage mating, pandas were seemingly "turned off" by captivity.

In Chengdu, the world's most successful panda breeding centre, researchers attempted to entice male pandas with the scent of suitable females on bamboo poles, mimicking wild scent-marking behaviour.

Rare interactions between aroused pairs often ended in disappointment, however.

Male pandas have proportionately short penises meaning pairs must adopt a very exact position in order to mate.

During their observations, researchers found that pandas demonstrated poor knowledge of this position.


Breakthroughs in captive panda breeding herald new hopes for wild populations

Researchers then employed methods ranging from sex education videos to viagra in order to stimulate natural behaviour.

Most techniques failed, and many encounters between pandas turned aggressive and violent.

Scientists therefore had to rely upon artificial insemination, but their efforts were again subject to the pandas' peculiar reproductive cycle.

Panda pregnancies can last anything from 11 weeks to 11 months and can remain undetected until shortly before birth.

So researchers had to pay close attention to pandas following insemination procedures, ready to perform a crucial intervention whenever cubs were born.

Crucial intervention

The boon in panda numbers at the Chengdu centre has largely been attributed to the innovative "twin swapping" technique.

Panda eats bamboo (c) Eric Baccega / NPL
Pandas feed exclusively on bamboo
It is so low in nutrients they need to eat 20kg per day
In the wild they spend at least 10 hours a day choosing the best bamboo

More than half of pandas give birth to two cubs at a time but only care for one.

It is assumed that as pandas cannot store fat, they lack the milk or energy to care for more than one cub at a time.

Whenever a cub was abandoned after birth, keepers at the Chengdu centre swiftly moved it to an incubator.

Panda mothers were tricked into caring for twins as staff stealthily rotated them between their mother and the incubators.

The survival rate of cubs rose to 98% through this combination of maternal care and artificial support.

By the end of last year, the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Centre alone had raised 168 cubs since its inception in 1987.

Hopes of reintroduction

Conservationists now believe captive numbers are strong enough to seriously consider wild reintroduction programmes.

Using the profits made from loaning their pandas to zoos worldwide, pioneers have purchased precious panda habitat in the Sichuan mountains, southwestern China.

With the goal of 300 captive pandas achieved, construction has started on the country's first dedicated panda reintroduction facility.

Panda Makers is broadcast on BBC TWO at 2000 GMT, Tuesday December 7th.

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