Giant pandas are cute and captivating (just look at that face above), making them a huge draw for visitors and a showcase animal for zoos. But few people are aware of the time, effort and money that goes into keeping one alive.
“It’s a huge effort,” said Marty Dearie, a giant panda caretaker at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C. “It’s not only the keeper staff, there’s a huge team … the reproduction team, the veterinary team, facilities, the whole zoo plays a huge role in this animal.”
The Smithsonian National Zoo recently celebrated the first birthday of its newest giant panda, Bao Bao.
The adorable panda has been melting hearts since she was born, but getting to the one-year milestone was a major undertaking.
For the National Zoo, it’s a challenge they are willing to meet and one that has yielded results. Visitation at the zoo has been up 30 percent since Bao Bao’s debut in January.
Challenge One: Birth
The first challenge for the team, is conception, yep, panda sex. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the Smithsonian zoo’s adult pandas, have never bred with anyone but each other, so they’re inexperienced in this part of adult panda life, according to Dearie.
“Ultimately what happens is positionally they don’t get in the right posture and they can’t breed. So we end up having to do the artificial insemination,” said Dearie.
That’s where Dr. Pierre Comizzoli and the rest of the reproduction team come in.
Comizzoli, a research biologist with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute at the National Zoo, studies the physiology of carnivores (which include the giant panda) and manages the zoo’s sperm bank.
“Everybody is working together to try and make sure the pandas are going to produce babies in captivity because it’s really important for the sustainability of the captive population,said Comizzoli. “And then the more we produce pandas in captivity, and the more chances we have to introduce them in the wild.”
In the 1980’s there were around 1,000 giant pandas in the wild. Today there are an estimated 1,600 and more than 300 in captivity, according to WWF.
Female pandas only ovulate once a year and the exact reproduction season is extremely difficult to predict, so timing is critical.
“We always first put the male and the female together because we always give them a chance to breed naturally, but then when see they are not being able to do anything, then after that, we switch gears and we decide to try the artificial insemination,” said Comizzoli.
Once the team decides to go ahead, they have a short window of time, between 12-24 hours, to complete the procedure.
After a successful insemination, Bao Bao was born on Aug. 23, 2013 at 4.8 ounces. For comparison the new iPhone 6 weighs 4.55 ounces. When we met her, she had grown to 47 pounds, and her parents each scale in at more than 200 pounds.
Not everyone thinks the effort is worth the results. Critics of panda breeding argue the programs are a waste of time and money.
Timothy Lavin called giant pandas a “hopeless and wasteful species,” in his opinion piece titled “Why I Hate Pandas and You Should Too” for Bloomberg View.
“Pandas don’t have much of a habitat left in the wild, thanks to heedless human development. And zoos imagine they’re doing the right thing, pulling in some extra visitors while helping conservation efforts.
But the first test of a species’ worthiness for conservation should be some instinct for self-preservation. And pandas fail objectively,” he wrote.
Challenge Two: Survival
Bao Bao is only the second surviving Giant panda cub born at the National Zoo. In 2012, Mei Xiang gave birth to a baby panda that died less than a week later.
“The fact that she lost that cub in 2012 was not indicative of her [ ] at all … That cub unfortunately had was appeared to be some congenital defects,” said Dearie.
Dearie told Fusion that since the death of the cub, keepers have taken a more hands-on approach at the suggestion of their Chinese counterparts.
Zoo keepers began handling Bao Bao when she was only two days old, and continued entering the den to provide care every day from then on.
“With bears in the U.S., typically we want to let them do the natural thing … So that was a big change for us,” he said.
The zoo considers ten days from birth as the first benchmark towards survival.
“If you can get to ten days, they [Chinese colleagues] feel pretty confident that the cub is healthy and that it’s going to have a good, healthy life,” said Dearie. “And then after that, it’s about a month. Cause at a month, the mother doesn’t have to be quite as interactive with the cub.”
Challenge Three: Move to China
When Bao Bao is four years old she will be sent to China and enter a breeding program for giant pandas, following in the footsteps of her brother, Tai Shan, who returned in 2010. Bao Bao will live out the rest of her life in China.
The zoo’s adult pandas are based in Washington, D.C. as a part of the “Giant Panda Cooperative Research and Breeding Agreement,” which was signed in January 2011, between the National Zoo and the China Wildlife Conservation Association.
The United States pays approximately $550,000 every year to China for each pair of pandas that currently live in the United States, according to National Geographic. The money is used to fund giant panda reserves in China, in an effort to keep the bears from going extinct.
“We have so much passion for this, and we love these animals so much that we want to make the right decisions for them,” said Dearie.
Panda caretakers train the young pandas, so that they will better integrate into their new home in China when they leave.
“And the breeding success that they have in China is so impressive and it’s so positive for the species that I think that it’s logically and scientifically, it makes all the sense in the world,” said Dearie.
“She gets to go back to more her native habitat,” he said.
-Produced and shot by Geneva Sands, video edited by Pat O’Gara, additional video and photos from the Smithsonian National Zoo.