By Smita Madan Paul 8/27/1999

The Scoop

The string of panda baby reports came out of the blue, bouncing across the Pacific and back again. Triplets in China. A newborn in California. Twin in China.

The birth were astonishing for the rare bear, and they captivated the world. The San Diego Zoo proudly announced the arrival of the first panda cub born in the United States in a decade on Aug. 21. Every move made by the mother, Bai Yun, and her unnamed cub was noted by scientists, packaged by public relations experts, dispatched to reporters and turned into headlines around the world:
"Bai Yun soothes the baby when it cries out!" "Bai Yun sleeps for 64 minutes in official first nap after birth!"

The week before, triplets had been born at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Center in China's Sichuan province. (One cub has since died of a bladder disorder.) Twins arrived at the Beijing zoo on Aug. 23, prompting the Xinhua News Agency to praise the "hero mother."

You'll be hard pressed to find another species that creates such fervor over the simple act of reproduction. Perhaps it is because it's never simple for rare and endangered giant pandas in captivity.

The pandas in zoos and breeding centers have long had a reputation as notoriously difficult breeders. They have been described as having "low sex drives," as being "clumsy" lovers, or even frigid. "But if we are going to use human emotions to describe the behavior of these bears, try looking at the entire mating process through the captive pandas' eyes.

Humans typically choose their mates; captive pandas usually get few choices or none at all. While we can get as much "practice" as we can manage or desire, they are limited to the few days in spring when a female goes into heat. In addition, we have some control over our privacy. Captivity pandas are often closely watched, with every move scrutinized, every mating attempt recorded.
"There are a lot of pieces in the puzzle, and we have to figure out what is missing. What is it that we are not providing in captivity?" says Rebecca Snyder, senior research associate at zoo Atlanta, which expects its first panda pair to arrive in Georgia from China this fall.

People are trying yo breed giant pandas because they are so rare. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that fewer than 1,000 remain in the wild, reduced in large part due to disappearing habitat. According to the 1997 census, slightly over 100 are in captivity.

To increase the panda's overall population and keep it healthy, scientists have been using artificial insemination over the years with mixed results. Other options being eyed or investigated include the use of fertility drugs, cloning and even the drug Viagra.

But in the United States, the focus has been primarily on natural breeding. Working with the second largest panda breeding center in Chengdu, Snyder has spent the last two and a half years going back and forth to China to do behavioral research. She's particularly interested in the relationship between panda mothers and their children.

The Atlanta team of researchers has been working with Chinese scientists to allow captive cubs to stay with their mothers longer. Perhaps they learn breeding or socialization skills by staying at her side, she  says. Often when  baby animals are isolated growing up, they become fearful of other animals as adults. It is common for pups to be taken from their mothers around six months after birth in china so that  the mother is able to breed within a year, she says.

What has become increasingly clear is that pandas need to know each other before a successful mating can occur, according to Lisa Stevens, associate curator of mammals
at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

When the zoo's first pair arrived in 1972 as a diplomatic gift from China, the advice was to keep the pandas apart as much as possible. when the pandas did get together in the first few years, there was a lot of aggression.

But the zoo started a regular routine of allowing them in each other's enclosures. Stevens believes this eventually led to the successful mating between the two pandas, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, who eventually gave birth to five cubs, though none survived.

The captive population, so far, has not been self-sustaining. From 1963 to 1997, there have been 197 births in captivity, but only a third of those survive to adulthood(around 65% mortality). About 40% do not make it through the first 30 days.

Researchers are also taking cues from populations in the wild, where pandas have no mating problems and rely on scent for important information. From scent, they can identify another panda, its sex and age. Wild male pandas have been observed to gather around a female and compete for a chance to mate with her, Snyder says. The dominant male may breed first and the other males may also try.

"There may be some kind of learning that is going on-or they might need that competition to be stimulated. That's something that cannot be replicated in captivity, "she says.

While most researchers agree that natural breeding is best, artificial insemination remains important for gene diversity, especially in such a small population.

Before the female Ling-Ling died at the National zoo, her follicles were removed so that, if the technology exists one day, scientists could create a bear using Ling-Ling's genes. Hsing-Hsing's semen has been collected several times and used in insemination attempts at different zoos around the world.

But these high-tech tools raise another dilemma, says Changquin Yu, an official with the World Wildlife Fund's office in China. The growth in artificial insemination "will make the captive giant panda more and more domesticated," he says. "And how can the domesticated giant panda be reintroduced to the wild?"

Smita Madan Paul, a freelance journalist

A rare three-cub litter was born mid-August 1999 in southwest China's Sichuan province.

A baby panda's rear legs and body are shown in this surveillance video at the San Diego zoo.

The panda mother Bai Yun is viewed through a special camera.

A giant panda cub born at the National zoo in 1987 died of liver failure four days after birth.

Ling-Ling gave birth to five cubs at the National zoo during her residence there, but they all died of different causes.


Baby Album

A mother panda nuzzles her young cub in China, which has been the most successful in breeding pandas in captivity.

Young pandas, such as this one photographed in January 1999 in China's Wolong Panda Reserve, rely on their mothers for food in the wild until they become about five months old and begin to eat bamboo.

Giant pandas in the wild:

mate typically during the months of March to May.

produce a litter of one to two young in August or
September(gestation is 122 to 163 days).

give birth to newborns that are tiny, blind and covered with a thin coat of fine hair.

mother helpless infants closely, since panda babies don't open their eyes until about 45 days after birth and won't crawl until they are about 75 days old.

begin to eat bamboo around the age of 5 months.

become solitary when about 1.5 years old.

reach sexual maturity after six or seven years.

eat up to 66 pounds of bamboo leaves, stems and shoots a day, spending up to 12 hours feeding.

growing up to length of 5 to 6 feet and weigh as much as 350 pounds.

live about 20 years.