What to expect when you’re expecting a panda (Second in a series)

Giant panda

Wild giant panda in China, captured using a motion-activated camera trap. Photo credits: Smithsonian Wild (siwild)

It seems as though birthing a panda may be harder for conservationists than for the panda herself.

Giant pandas are a species of endangered animals known and loved around the world. They are characterized by their love of bamboo and monochrome colouration. They are also known by some for their extremely small window for ovulation and challenges in reproduction.

Pandas are a perfect example to show the positive and negative effects of humans.

Panda bears are native to China and have been hugely affected by modernization of the country, according to the World Wildlife Fund, one of the biggest conservation organizations in the world. Giant pandas mostly populate Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, but due to deforestation and modernization in the area, their habitat has been badly affected.

The pandas have been provided with sanctuaries, and other forms of protection, by the government, but they are still victims of poaching and the loss of habitat.

And having someone taking apart your backyard and then coming to stay, doesn’t exactly get you in the frisky mood, either.

Many endangered animals living in captivity are impregnated using artificial insemination to increase their chances of conception. Pandas are one of those animals because the females have only a 36-hour time span each year in which they can become pregnant.

While the panda population has actually increased slightly over the last couple of decades, the last panda survey in China, which was in 2004, showed there to be approximately 1,600 wild pandas remaining. At the end of 2003, there were 166 captive pandas around the world in addition to that number.

With this fairly low number, scientists and zoos worldwide have been making efforts to get their captive pandas to have cubs.

Over the last few years, it seems as though getting pregnant is just the easy part.

Artificial insemination is not always successful. At the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., their female panda, Mei Xiang, had five failed pregnancies between 2007 and 2012. Finally in 2012, she gave birth to a cub to the pleasant surprise of caretakers. Sadly, that cub died after a week, due to lung and liver damage.

In August 2013, Mei Xiang had twins. The firstborn, a female cub, is growing healthy and strong and was reported on Thursday by NBC to be at five pounds at eight weeks of age. The cub will not be named until it is 100 days old, following Chinese traditions.

The second baby was a stillborn, again showing challenges of panda birth.

Giant pandas really are “perhaps the most recognizable conservation symbol in the world,” Christine Dell’Amore wrote in National Geographic on Aug. 27.

However, supporting pandas in a zoo can cost upwards of $2.6 million dollars annually, according to National Geographic’s Lynne Warren in July 2006.

Giant panda

Giant panda at the San Diego Zoo. Photo credits: Rene Rivers (flickr: renedrivers)

Although this may be the case, Don Lindburg, who is the former head director of the giant panda program at the San Diego Zoo, was quoted in the same article as saying, “Our pandas are valuable because they create a reason for a relationship with China. They open doors and give us access to what’s happening with pandas in the field.” The revenue, international fame and increased visitors are a bonus, but the international relationships created is really the star in this effort.

The expense, time, practice, effort and cooperation do pay off, however, when a new panda is born and survives. As Warren wrote in her article, each panda born “moves his species one step closer to a self-sustaining captive population, and one step back from the brink of extinction.”

It does take baby steps to bring a population back to steady levels, as well as a lot of funding. Perhaps it may be too much according to David Wildt, head of the National Zoo’s reproductive sciences program, who said in Warren’s story, “Nobody would ever commit this kind of money to any other species.”

That opinion may be true, but for the most recognized and beloved animal image in conservation worldwide, are they not worth the time and money?

• • •

This is the second in a series of articles examining the impact of people – positive and negative – on the world’s animals. Part one is here.


Journalism student at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Lover of social media, photography, and reading the news.


  • Avatar
    Reply October 25, 2013

    Alexandra Hawley

    I know a whole bunch about pandas, I did not know that they only had 36 hours to get laid. That’s insane. This was a very informative article. That last point you made though, about only spending so much time and money on the panda is intriguing. I agree it’s worth it, but other endangered animals would greatly benefit on even half of the money that people put towards pandas.

  • […] that has been largely affected by habitat loss is the giant panda, which was discussed in the second article in this […]

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