20080318-Chengdu-panda Nolls.jpg
A panda at the Chengdu panda facility

In 2015, 38 cubs were born in China, a record, 18 of them at Bifengxia Giant Panda Base (BFX, 140 kilometers from Chengdu. In 2016, twenty-three panda cubs were born at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Twelve cubs were born in September 2011.

As of April 2006, more than 180 pandas had been bred in captivity. More than 120 pandas have been born at Wolong Nature Reserve between 1980 and 2007, with 45 of them born in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding had six pandas when it opened in 1987. It had 108 in 2011. Between 1963 and 2001, 210 pandas have been born in captivity in China and 20 overseas. Many died. Four zoos in the United States have worked closely with China to raise pandas. The first panda to be born and survive in the United States was born at the San Diego Zoo in August, 1999. As of March 2007, four pandas had been born at the San Diego Zoo.

Improved artificial insemination has improved the success rate of panda captive breeding. In 1980, scientists learned how to preserve male sperm by freezing it in liquid hydrogen. Later U.S. scientists provided Chinese scientists with technical knowledge of artificial insemination procedures. The success rate has improved further as scientists have learned more about when a female is ready to conceive and the number of captive pandas that can be used in artificial breeding have matured.

Scientists determine that females are receptive by monitoring the estrogen levels in their urine and taking vaginal cells and analyzing them to see how close ovulation is. After the female has been artificially inseminated, scientists don't know if she is pregnant until the embryo attaches itself to the uterus, which can take as long as four months.

When test show the female is ovulating, a male is given a chance to show his stuff. If nothing happens researchers anaesthetize him and use a technique called electro-ejaculation in which a probe is inserted into his rectum and an electrical charge causes ejaculation. The sperm is placed in catheter that is guided into place in the female’s uterus with a laparoscope (a tiny telescope with a fiber optic light often used in human medicine). Pandas have been bred with both fresh semen and frozen semen.

History of the Artificial Breeding of Pandas

In 1953, Chengdu Zoo began the breeding of giant pandas and this marks the beginning of breeding and artificial reproduction of the giant panda in China. Two years later, Beijing Zoo also began to breed giant pandas. Between 1953 and 2003 more than 40 zoos, parks or natural reserves in China have bred or exhibited giant pandas. [Source: Science Museum of China]

The breeding of giant pandas under human observation first succeeded 1963 when LiLi and SenSen mated under natural circumstances and gave birth to a panda cub. In 1978, artificial fertilization successfully led to the birth of a panda cub. In 1980, artificial fertilization with refrigerated sperm succeeded at the Chengdu Zoo.

Before the 1980s, giant pandas in public zoos were mostly captured or saved from nature; in the early 1980s, a number of sick and famine-striken giant pandas in the famine caused by bamboo blossoming were rescued and put into public zoos. Since the 1990s, few pandas have been saved or captured from nature. Most rescued wild pandas have been returned to where they came from. Now, the population of pandas born by artificial reproduction exceeds that of pandas born in the wild. Between the 1950s to the early 1980s, 24 giant pandas had been given by the national leaders of China to zoos of nine countries as national gifts. However, from the 1990s, giant pandas in other countries mainly come from joint research programs with the Chinese giant panda institutes, and the ownership of all these giant pandas belong to China.

The China Giant Panda Protection and Research Center began the manual breeding of giant panda in 1980, and then moved to its newly-built base at Taoheping in 1983. In its beginning years, the main task of the center was to rescue sick and famine-striken pandas, and conduct research on artificial reproduction. Between 1980 to 1990, the center had obtained 18 giant pandas for manual breeding (4 giant pandas, a male and three females, were moved out). In 1986, the first panda cub was born successfully. Since 1991, the focus of the research center was turned to the artificial reproduction of giant pandas manually bred, and a panda-reproduction tackling plan was launched. At present, China Giant Panda Protection and Research Center has the largest manually-bred giant panda group.

Difficulties with Captive Breeding Pandas

Conservationist and zoologists initially had little success breeding pandas in captivity. In the early years the failure rate was high and the survival rate of those that were born was low with 60 percent of the pandas born dying within the first month. Of the 144 pandas born in captivity before 1995, only 43 are still alive, 37 of them in China."

To increase the number of pandas, the Chinese government began offering a cash reward of $1,724 in 1992 for every panda breed in captivity. That may not sound like much money in the West but $1,724 was about five times the average salary of a worker in China at that time.

Pandas that have come in contact with humans have difficulty reproducing naturally and taking care of their young if they do give birth. Fewer than a third of captive panda’s have mated naturally. Mothers in captivity are often unable to properly take care of their young. Ling Ling, the female panda at the National Zoo in Washington, and her mate Hsing Hsing didn’t successfully mate for 10 years. She was pregnant twice and gave birth once but the cub didn't survive.

Captive breeding produces inbreeding, Scientists meet to work out the best matches among pandas with the most diverse DNA. Identification chips — with a information about pedigree, age and other basic data — have been implanted into captive panda’s to better monitor the animals and prevent inbreeding.

Some panda cubs have died because the were unable to get milk from their mothers and died of malnutrition. The Chinese hired Japanese researcher Toshi Watanabe, who invented a milking system for rats, to do the same for pandas. After five years — much of the time spent developing replicas of a panda mother’s nipples and a baby mouths using silicon — the panda milking machine was made. The milking machines are used at the panda breeding centers in Sichuan and have contributed to the increased number of pandas at the centers.

Difficulties Getting Captive Pandas Interested in Sex

Only 10 percent of male pandas in captivity can mate. To increase the odds, researching at Wolong Research center put males in pens with females in heat, show them “pornographic” videos of mating pandas and exercise their rear legs so they have no problem standing up during mating. The porn videos are thought have helped one male mate successfully. The jury is still on whether males put through “sexercise” — aimed at strengthening their pelvic and leg muscles so the could mate — achieved anything. Experiments with Viagra didn’t produce any promising results.

The boredom and stress of captive life can negatively affect reproductive behavior. Males are often not interested in sex or are so aggressive they pose a danger to fertile females. Females can be picky and 80 percent of males fail to respond appropriately to receptive females. "Because the world's captive community is so limited, finding a compatible mate can be like dating in a very small town," one scientist said. Even when both seem willing, the male is often unable to consummate the affair.

Typically, a female panda in heat is poked and prodded with a bamboo pole in the direction of the male she is supposed to mate with. The male responds by taking a whiff or her rear end and then retreats to a corner turning his back to the female, and munches on stalks of bamboo.

Improvements in the Artificial Breeding of Giant Pandas

The China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Panda spent 13 years' — from January 1991 to October 2003 — trying to overcome the "three key problems" of artificially breeding giant panda. 1) difficulty in panda's mating, 2) difficulty in panda's pregnancy and 3) difficulty in keeping panda cubs alive. When the research center was first established in in 1991, there were only six giant pandas; by 2003 it had 74, most of them artificially bred. [Source: Science Museum of China]

Under human observation, natural mating often doesn't leads to success because the ovulation period of a female panda only lasts for one to three days although it may be in heat for a much longer period. In order to ensure a relatively high pregnancy ratio, high tech methods are used to determine the ovulation period and pick the ideal time for artificial fertilization. Other methods that have helped breed pandas have included: 1) improving the feeding and management of giant pandas, adjusting the feed formula, and studying the reproductive physiology of female giant pandas and their periods of ovulation, 75 percent of female giant pandas in the reproductive period gave given birth to young panda cubs. 2) The vitality of male panda sperm has been greatly increased through modifying methods of cold preservation of giant panda's sperm and defrosting it. 3) A comprehensive study of giant pandas’ hormone made it possible to chose the best time for artificial fertilization. On top of this using natural mating and artificial fertilization at the same time has great increased the chance of pregnancy.

The chance of getting twins is bigger under artificial fertilization conditions. From 1980 to 2000, the Panda Breeding and Research Center of Chengdu together with the Chengdu Zoo, had 61 panda cubs in 40 pregnancies through artificial reproduction; 38 of the 61 cubs lived up to half a year. From 1991 to 1997, 24 giant panda cubs were born and 14 (58.33 percent) survived; from 1998 to 2003, 41 giant panda cubs were born in 25 pregnancies and 38 survived. The survival rate here was 92.7 percent.

Tang Chunxiang, the chief veterinarian at the China Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda in Chengdu, told The Times in 2011: “Now our focus is to improve genetic quality, control the size of the panda population and ensure better natal and pre-natal care and improved upbringing...We will not purposely reduce the number of panda births, but we will only allow those that set a proper genetic quality to breed. Others will not be allowed to reproduce or will reproduce less.” [Source: Jane, Macartney, Times of London, January 2011]

Captive Breeding Successes

In the early days of panda captive breeding, many newborn panda’s died but recent studies on the care and feeding of pandas have dramatically improved their survival rate. Of the 16 baby pandas born in 2005 at Wolong’six single cubs, and five pairs of twins — all survived and are flourishing. In 2000, nine infants were born at Wolong and eight survived the crucial first weeks. In 1999, 14 pregnant females .were recorded at the Panda Research Center in Chengdu.

Chinese scientists say that they have achieved an 84 percent success rate in the artificial breeding of pandas. As of late 2007, 128 of the 239 giant pandas in captivity were at Wolong center, the majority of which were bred in captivity. An effort has been made to breed pandas with the greatest genetic diversity possible to ensure the long term survival of the species. In August 2006, the heaviest panda born in captivity was born at the Wolong center. It weighed 218 grams. It took 34 hours for its mother to give birth, another record. The cub was born during a streak in which five pandas were born in two days. The others included two sets of twin panda sisters at the Chengdu Center .

In 2010, 31 cubs were produced in China from 38 births, both records at that time. The previous record was 25 successful live births in 2009. Twenty-five pandas were born and survived in 2005, including 16 at the Wolong center and three at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Center in Chengdu. Others were born at research centers and zoos in Japan and Washington D.C. Less than half that number were born in 2004. In 2006, there were 33 successful births, in 2007, 31, including a record 12 pairs of twins.

The first panda to be conceived using frozen sperm was born at Wolong in July 2009. The greatest benefit of this advancement is that sperm from pandas in zoos in San Diego, Mexico City and other places could be more easily used with animals in China and visa versa, reducing inbreeding. The methods had been tried many times before but failed. Improvements in the hawing technique are believed to be behind the success. In past only 30 percent of the sperms survived after being frozen with liquid nitrogen. This time 80 percent survived.

In 2014, the first known newborn panda triplets to survive into adulthood were born at the Chimelong Safari Park in Guangzhou. AFP reported: The mother, named Juxiao, which means "chrysanthemum smile", delivered the triplets in the early hours, but was too exhausted to take care of them afterwards. A video from the zoo showed Juxiao sitting in the corner of a room as she delivered her cubs for four hours and licking them after they were born. By the time it came to the delivery of the third cub, she was lying on her side. Her cubs were initially put in to incubators while Juxiao regained her strength, but they have now been brought back to their mother for nursing and were being attended to by a round-the-clock team of feeders, the zoo said on Tuesday. “The cubs were naturally conceived when the zoo paired 12-year-old Juxiao and the 17-year-old father, Linlin. The triplets celebrated their fifth birthday in 2019/. [Source: Agence France-Presse,, August 12, 2014]

Raising Captive Bred Pandas

The average cost of maintaining a panda, mainly food and medicine, at Wolong is about $5,000 a year. Staff that work with young pandas at the China Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda in Chengdu disguise themselves in panda costumes when they approach the animals. The facility in Chengdu disposes of 200 tons of panda dropping a year.

In captivity scientist often swap twins — with the favored cub being replaced with the rejected one and visa versa’so both cubs get the mother’s attention and milk for half the time.

Captive pandas get sick easily, often digestive tract disorders. Baby pandas must be handled frequently and rolled from side to side otherwise their intestines become flattened or distorted. Mother pandas constantly move the infants around to prevent this from happening. Young pandas often suffer from bloating when bamboo gets stuck in their digestive system. At Wolong bloated pandas are frequently rushed into the emergency room.

Pandas are generally docile and don’t move around much and are easy to control in captivity. Captive pandas generally live longer and become bigger and heavier than wild pandas. They are fed bamboo along with apples, carrots, bread and nutritional supplements,

Pandas at the Chengdu center produce a ton of droppings a month. The facility pays $770 a month to clean up the mess. Some of the dung is sterilized under 3000 degrees C heat and sold as an odor free souvenir with a Beijing Olympics panda mascots on the package.

Wolong Nature Reserve

Wolong Nature Reserve (120 kilometers northwest of Chengdu, two hour by bus from Chengdu) is the panda reserve most visited by Western scientists and tourists. The terrain is rugged and the bamboo forest are so dense that likelihood of seeing a panda in the wild is rare. Tourists are often restricted from going much of anywhere anyway. Most visitors stay close to the big research center and veterinary hospital. Wolong means “sleeping dragon."

Set up in 1963, Wolong Reserve covers 500,000 acres (800 square miles) and is home to about 150 pandas as well 20 kinds of reptile, 280 species of bird and 4,000 species of plant . Among the 96 mammal species are endangered golden monkeys, which travel in groups up to 300 animals; takin, a strange looking animal related to the musk ox; and tufted deer, which have odd-looking, protruding canine teeth. Around 3,000 people, most of then members of the Tibetan-like Qiang minority, farm some of the slopes in the reserve.

Panda Breeding at Bifengxia Giant Panda Base

Bifengxia Giant Panda Base (BFX, 140 kilometers from Chengdu) is a giant panda research and breeding facility in Bifengxia Town, Ya'an, Sichuan, It opened in 2004, and is the home of several giant pandas and breeding laboratory. On the panda breeding activity there: Jennifer S. Holland wrote in National Geographic Traveller: “In this setting, little about panda production is natural. Dropping a male in with a female can even lead to aggression instead of mating. To set the mood, breeders in China have tried “panda porn”—videos of pandas mating—mostly for the encouraging sounds; apples on sticks to tempt males into mounting position; Chinese herbs; and even Viagra and sex toys. Director Zhang Hemin, also known as Papa Panda, recalls an awkward shopping trip to an “adult toy store” in Chengdu. “We told the clerk we needed a female-genital stimulator that had to warm up,” he told me. “Then I had to ask for a receipt to submit to the government for reimbursement.”[Source: Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic Traveller, August, 2016]

“Now protocol includes artificial insemination, sometimes with sperm from two males. Part of the challenge is that female pandas are in estrus just once a year for only 24 to 72 hours. Endocrinologists monitor hormones in the urine that can predict ovulation and may inseminate several times within a day or two to boost the chances of implantation. Then, for months, females keep the keepers guessing. “It’s hard to even know if a panda is pregnant,” says BFX’s director, Zhang Guiquan. “The fetus is so tiny that it’s easy to miss on an ultrasound.” Pandas can have delayed implantation, extremely varied gestation times, random hormone fluctuations, and quiet miscarriages.

“The artificialness of this and other aspects of their lives worries Sarah Bexell of the University of Denver, who worked at another panda breeding center for years: “Bears are so stoic, especially pandas. You really have to freak them out to get a reaction that we’d perceive as stress.” They learn to cope and may seem relaxed, she says, “but if we could sit down and interview them, we’d hear something very different.” Smithsonian ecologist William McShea adds: “What we are asking them to do—basically have sex in a phone booth with a crowd of people watching—has little to do with real panda reproduction.”

“Liu Juan, petite and shy behind square-rimmed glasses, is working a 24-hour shift, her second one that week. She has a toddler son who stays at home with family. “This job is more intense,” she says of mothering the pandas, “but I love being with them.” Incubating the newborns, bottle-feeding, rocking, burping, responding to their bleats for attention, rubbing bellies to stimulate the gut, weighing and measuring, and keeping toddlers from wandering—“the work is nonstop, a crazy amount,” she says. Her puffy orange slippers shush across the floor as she chases an escapee. “My body never recovers. I’ve lost hair from being under so much stress.” There is massive pressure, she says, to keep the cubs alive: “They are so important to China.”

Rewilding and the Release of Captive Bred Pandas

The long term goal at Wolong is to boost wild panda numbers by releasing captive-bred animals into the wild. In April 2006, a captive-bred panda named Xiang Xiang was taken away form his pampered life at Wolong and plopped in the middle of a bamboo forest to fend for himself. The four-year-old male was the first captive-bred panda to be released in the wild. He was prepared in a 10-square-mile enclosed area and taught feeding and nesting skills. Before he was released his supply of bamboo was reduced to encourage him to forage on his own.

Some have doubts about the scheme or returning pandas to the wild. A few months after he was released scientists found that Xiang Xiang’s radio collar wasn’t working. They tracked him down and found he had been injured in a fight with another male presumably over territory. He was patched up and returned to the forest. A few weeks later Xiang Xiang disappeared. It is thought he had another encounter with a male and fell while trying to climb a tree to escape and broke his leg. Efforts to find him turned up empty. Huang Yan, vice-director research at Wolong told The Times: “Xiang Xiang’s training did not start until he was two and he had already come to depend a lot on humans. The experience we gained from Xiang Xiang is that the training should begin as early as possible.

Chinese scientist have not given up. As of late 2007, four other pandas were being prepared for release into the wild. According to the plan the next panda to be released will be a pregnant female, who her keepers say will be less of a threat to wild male pandas and better prepared than Xiang Xiang to fend for herself.

As of 2016, five animals had been released. They were all wearing tracking collars. Three were still out there at that time. Two were found dead.Those losses were “media disasters for China.” Of the survivors Tao Tao (Little Rascal), a male, had survived nearly four years in the wild. Zhang Xiang (The Thoughtful One) was released in Liziping Nature Reserve in 2013. She was the first female released since reintroductions began. She was doing okay in 2016. David Wildt, the head of the species survival team at Wolong told National Geographic each case led scientists to “try to think more like a panda, to understand what the bears truly need” and refine training and release protocols. In 2016 three pandas were being considered for release. [Source: Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic Traveller, August, 2016]

Training Captive Bred Pandas

Wolong has created a 75-acre enclosure where pandas live for several years as a sort of halfway house before being released to the wild. The plan is for only lone females or male-female pairs to be released to avoid conflicts with dominant males. There has been some discussion of using police dogs to teach the pandas fighting skills. Already four pandas at Woolong live with a specially-trained police dog or other animals, with the idea that the pandas would learn how to protect themselves by observing the dog and other animals, increasing their chances of survival in the wild.

Jennifer S. Holland wrote in National Geographic Traveller: “Select cubs are trained for life in the wild at Hetaoping. Keepers wear full-body panda costumes scented with panda urine so that young bears don’t get used to humans. A cub here remains with its mother, and over two years, while in her care, he or she is eased toward wildness. After a year or so, the pair is moved to a large, fenced-in habitat up the mountain where the mother can continue coaching her offspring until the youngster is released—if deemed fit for freedom. To qualify a young panda must be independent; wary of other animals, including humans; and capable of finding food and shelter unaided. Not all are. “Like breeding, rewilding pandas “will take trial and error, time and money,” an American scientists involved in the project said.” [Source: Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic Traveller, August, 2016]

“In a training enclosure in Wolong, Ye Ye—a female whose name honors the friendship between Japan and China—appears at the fence looking for a handout. Her cub Hua Yan (Pretty Girl) is nowhere to be seen, and that’s a good sign. Independence is key to survival—and the three-year-old cub, her training nearly complete, will soon be released into the wild. But first, it’s another cub’s turn. Over four days in mid-November, Hua Jiao (Delicate Beauty) is caught, given a final health check, fitted with a collar, crated, and driven 200 miles to the Liziping Nature Reserve. It has good bear habitat and a small panda population ripe for a new member.

“It’s a day that’s been in the works since the start of this exceptional conservation experiment. Saving pandas is a bear-by-bear process, Hua Jiao’s release a small but essential step on a long, rocky path. With five other cubs at Wolong up for release within a few years, panda conservation will doubtless be in the news. Whether for tragedy or triumph, no one can say.

“On this November morning, under a bright blue sky, four men lift Hua Jiao’s cage from the truck and position it facing the forest. Bamboo-draped barriers conceal spectators and point the way forward. Without fanfare, a keeper unlatches the door. At first the young panda stays put at the back of the crate, munching bamboo, her last captive meal. After today she’ll fend for herself in every way. In a few years she may seek a mate and could add five or more cubs to the population over her lifetime. It’s not a game-changing number, but for an endangered species with fewer than 2,000 animals in the wild, every individual counts. Finally, with some coaxing from the keepers, Hua Jiao emerges, blinking into the light, her paws sinking into the soft soil. And then, without a glance back at her captors and the life she’s known thus far, she lopes toward freedom.

Pandas Valley Training Center

The "Panda Valley" project aims to introduce pandas born in captivity into the wild using a strategy that hadn’t been tried before with pandas. The project feature three zones that effectively act as buffers between man and the wild, with the pandas rotating between them and acclimatizing to reduced human contact. The zones were completed in 2015, and the first pandas were relocated there the following year, with a goal of setting them free within 10-20 years. A leader of the project said, "We have to be very, very careful...Many others have tried this and failed."

Leo Lewis wrote in The Times, “Six giant pandas, born and raised in captivity, padded out of their cages for the first time to confront the bewildering terrors of nature: 50 television cameras, a phalanx of Chinese officials, a grinning basketball star and a huge electric fence. The young pandas, two male and four female, began their training program in the semi-wild environment of Panda Valley with predictable anxiety. One climbed a log bridge strung between two manicured trees, another prodded at a bale of bamboo. A third lolloped into the perimeter trench and admired the concrete wall separating him from the dangers of the countryside of southwestern Sichuan province. [Source: Leo Lewis, The Times, January 12, 2012]

If any of the animals become too vexed by all that natural savagery, explained one panda researcher, they can always head back indoors. The experiment has been billed as the boldest attempt yet to introduce pandas bred in captivity to the wild. However, it could be more than a decade before Xingrong, Qiqi, Zhizhi and other members of the panda sextet are judged independent enough to leave their 20 hectare, minutely controlled enclosure. "The thinking behind the latest experiment is that, very gradually, life in the enclosure that is Panda Valley should come to mimic an actual valley of wild pandas. The six bears will be introduced to the idea of foraging, defending themselves from the dangers of the wild and mating.

The six pioneer pandas, aged between 2 and 4, were selected from 108 bred in the Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base. If their release is successful, researchers plan to repeat the process on a larger scale. The small enclosures will be expanded to train 30 pandas at a time with the aim of releasing more than 100 into the wild by 2060. The basketball player Yao Ming was on hand to offer his encouragement during the launch of the project.

Cloned Pandas, Genome Mapping and the Ignoble Prize

Scientists in China say that cloning pandas is very close to reality. The Fuzhou Panda Research Center is working on a panda cloning project and have said they are one only step away from successfully cloning pandas. The first panda embryo using the ovum of a different species, a rabbit, was created in 1998. In the early 2000s, an embryo was successfully implanted into the uterus of another species, a cat. The only obstacle they need to overcome is having the embryo develop into a fetus that stays alive long enough to be born.

Cloning pandas with bears as surrogate mothers is being investigated. Researchers have said the technique that holds the most promise is fusing panda egg cells with black bear cells and raising the embryo in a black bear surrogate mother. The same or similar technology used to clone a gaur could be used on pandas (See Asian Animals). Some say everything possible should be done to save the pandas. Critics claim that cloning reduces the genetic pool of pandas and would make them vulnerable to disease.

In the late 2000s, scientists in China with the help of scientists from the United States, Britain, Denmark and Canada mapped the genome of the giant panda by studying the DNA of three-year old female named Jing Jing. Among the things that scientists figured out was that pandas are definitely related to bears not raccoons. One of the hopes of the research is that scientists can use the information to find ways to make it easier for pandas to mate.

In 2009, Chinese and Japanese researchers were awarded an Ignoble Prize by a Harvard-based humor magazine for developing a method to cut kitchen refuge by using bacteria derived from the feces of giant pandas.

Image Sources: 1) Xinhua; 2) Mongabey ; 3) Panda ailumela; 4) Nolls China website ; 5) WWF; 6) Beifan

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2022

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