Despite several international efforts, Giant Panda Reproduction remains tricky and complicated. Here’s why.
Although the IUCN has officially downgraded the panda bear from Endangered to Vulnerable, it’s not yet “all clear” for the beloved and widely popular bear.
A serious challenge the Giant Panda (Ailuropoda Melanoleuca) continues to face is that of an extremely low and difficult birth rate.
As a matter of fact, giant panda reproduction is so complicated that it has become the topic of many jokes worldwide. The issue is even worse when China’s iconic bears are held in captivity.
There are just about 2,000 of these bears in the world today and though the numbers are slowly increasing, it’s still too low for comfort.
Let’s look at what the real issues are with giant panda reproduction.
What Is Giant Panda Reproduction Like In The Wild?
In the wild, pandas mate like other animals would although scientists are not yet lucky to have observed their mating rituals very closely. However, we do know that males compete fiercely for the chance to mate with females in heat.
After mating, wild female giant pandas typically give birth once every two years. The cubs remain with their mother and receive all the care they need. However, even in the wild, many cubs still don’t make it to adulthood hence the need for captive breeding programs.
Why Is Giant Panda Reproduction So Tricky And Complicated In Captivity?
Getting The Panda Scent Right
During the breeding season, the female pandas secretes a scent from a gland located at their anal region. In the wild, they rub these glands against trees to attract the males of the species.
Obviously, that same strategy can’t work in captivity where they are kept apart all year long.
So before they can mate they must be exposed to each others scent. Also they must “accept” each other which can lead to a considerable delay in the reproduction process. Zoo keepers will usually place towels and burlap bags scented with the pandas smells in each others enclosures to facilitate this scent exchange.
The Mating Window Is Very Narrow
These animals mate to produce offspring during their annual estrus (heat). They are solitary bears and generally only come into contact with other giant pandas during the peak of their mating period.
Every year, the female panda ovulate 1 to 3 eggs during her annual estrus which lasts for just 1 to 3 days. This means that their window to conceive is extremely narrow. Thereby making their reproduction process difficult compared to that of other animals.
When it is confirmed that the female panda is entering the peak of estrus, the exhibit or zoo the pandas are housed in usually closes their doors to the public. This is to provide a quiet and disturbance free atmosphere for them to mate.
Successful Fertilization Is Not Guaranteed
Unlike many other animals that get pregnant immediately after mating, the giant panda’s issue is a different one entirely.
The egg released by the female during estrus may not be healthy. On the other hand, even in cases where the ovulated egg is healthy, the chance of successful fertilization and pregnancy is still relatively low. This happens to be just another complication of giant panda reproduction.
In addition to the difficulty of successful mating, female pandas also frequently reject the mating efforts of the males.
Poor Pregnancy Success Rate/Pseudo-Pregnancies
During the first few breeding seasons, these pandas usually only have a pregnancy success rate of around 30 to 50 percent. Their gestation period can range from 70 to a whopping 300 days and pseudo-pregnancies happen to be extremely common during these periods.
When experiencing pseudo-pregnancies these animals exhibit similar behaviors as an actual pregnancy. Such symptoms include reduction in appetite, the appearance of nest building behaviors, and the rapid changes in the vulva and hormonal levels.
This means that pregnancy can only be confirmed through an ultrasound scan which can only detect the fetus two weeks prior to birth.
Artificial Insemination Is No Guarantee Of Success
When all else fails, animal experts and zoo keepers may resort to artificial insemination. Though neither artificial insemination nor old-fashioned mating will guarantee a pregnancy.
Giant Panda Cubs Are Notoriously Fragile And Vulnerable
Lastly, unlike most other mammals such as deer, cows or horses who give birth to young ones who can walk immediately after birth, panda cubs happen to come in to the world completely helpless. For instance, even human babies that are known to be ill equipped to survive after birth appear relatively advanced compared to panda newborn cubs.
The first three weeks of life happen to be the most vulnerable. There is also the danger of the much larger mother smothering her newborn.
All these factors add to the very low survival rate of these cubs. Therefore, their carers have to pool their resources together to help feed and cuddle the newborns. This is one major reason the maintenance and up keep of these animals is quite cost intensive.
Granted, panda bear captive breeding programs today are recording a much higher success rate than when they first started. With continuous training, the animal keepers are learning more about what works and what doesn’t.
Hopefully, these efforts will continue to yield better results and ultimately boost giant panda population as a whole.
Ann Batdorf, Smithsonian’s National Zoo