Giant Panda: A Symbol of Conservation Success

As few as 1,864 giant pandas live in their native habitat, while another 600 pandas live in zoos and breeding centers around the world. The largest threat to giant panda survival is habitat destruction. People in need of food and income have cleared forests for agriculture and timber. This logging has fragmented a once continuous habitat, leaving small groups of pandas isolated from each other.

When populations become small, they are extremely susceptible to extinction due to environmental or genetic influences, such as drought or inbreeding. Small populations cannot rebound the same way large populations do; as groups of pandas become more isolated, it is more likely that reproduction, disease resistance and population stability will be threatened.

For more than 40 years, the Zoo has celebrated these charismatic bears by creating and maintaining one of the world’s foremost panda conservation programs. In that time, the Zoo’s team — consisting of dozens of animal care staff, scientists, researchers, international collaborators and conservationists — has made great strides in saving this species from extinction by studying giant panda behavior, health, habitat and reproduction.

Specifically, it has allowed scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute to learn about panda estrus, breeding, pregnancy, pseudopregnancy and cub development — work that is shared around the world with other institutions that also care for and breed this vulnerable species.

Breeding Giant Pandas

Smithsonian’s National Zoo scientists began giant panda research when Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing arrived at the Zoo in 1972. See a history and timeline of giant pandas at the Zoo here. Much has been learned since that time, but there still remains much more to learn. With the arrival of Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, the Zoo has developed a ten-year research plan that will hopefully culminate in a growing, thriving population of giant pandas.

Some research areas will repeat behavioral observation studies on Tian Tian and Mei Xiang in order to increase sample size and determine whether a behavior pattern is common to giant pandas or particular to an individual. In other areas, such as reproductive biology, the advanced techniques scientists use today largely did not exist when Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were alive. Also, opportunities for research and conservation initiatives in the wild, including the potential for increasing the wild giant panda population in China through reintroduction, are greater today than at any time in the past. However, these plans and initiatives will be costly to carry out, as will China’s official National Plan for the Conservation of Giant Pandas and their Habitats.

Scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation and Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation Genomics, have become adept at studying the genetic relatedness of pandas in human care. Chinese colleagues maintain an up-to-date studbook of these vulnerable animals. Zoo scientists developed the formula used to make breeding recommendations for the entire giant panda population in human care, ensuring that it is genetically healthy. Scientists are working to preserve 90 percent of the genetic diversity of the giant panda population in human care.

Panda breeding season is a race against the biological clock. It only comes once a year, and the giant panda team, including scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Species Survival, and vets, keepers and biologists from the Zoo’s animal care teams, must be ready. Giant panda females, like Mei Xiang, ovulate for just 24 to 72 hours.

To identify the opening of that tiny window, animal keepers carefully watch Mei Xiang for any behavioral sign of estrus. At the same time, scientists monitor hormones in her urine to pinpoint the window when she is ready to breed. If attempts at natural breeding are not successful, scientists can step in, collect fresh or frozen-thawed semen from a male and use the genetic material collected to artificially inseminate a female. At the Zoo, four artificial inseminations have resulted in successful births: male Tai Shan in 2005, female Bao Bao in 2013, male Bei Bei in 2015 and male Xiao Qi Ji in 2020.

Saving Pandas in the Wild

Under the terms of the Zoo’s agreement with China, scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Conservation Ecology Center have studied these bears both in the wild and in human care.

Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute ecologists spend months in China every year studying wild pandas and their neighbors, such as Asiatic black bears and takin. They teach colleagues in China how to conduct censuses and surveys of large mammals, including giant pandas that live in the wild, using geographic information systems (GIS) and other high-tech tools for tracking wildlife.

They are also working to identify new landscapes for giant panda reintroduction. Field research has revealed that wild pandas’ habitat is highly fragmented, which means pandas have a difficult time finding a mate. To address that problem, Zoo scientists and colleagues have been exploring the possibility of creating “corridors” of forests that link isolated habitats. Such corridors would give giant pandas more options for movement and mate selection. They might also assist with the reintroduction of captive-born pandas into the wild.

The Zoo’s pandas are part of Panda Watch behavior study. Each day, dedicated Friends of the National Zoo volunteers, called Panda Watchers, monitor the pandas’ behavior via the Panda Cam. Over the years, they’ve amassed mountains of data on the species, which is notoriously difficult to study in the wild.

The Future

In December 2011, David M. Rubenstein donated $4.5 million to the Zoo to fund the giant panda program through 2016. In appreciation, the giant panda complex was named the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat. In addition, young conservation biologists in the U.S. and in China who were awarded Smithsonian’s National Zoo fellowships for their work to save this vulnerable species were named “David M. Rubenstein Fellows.” The gift was used to fund conservation efforts in China, reproductive science, professional training programs, giant panda care at the Zoo, upgrades to the Zoo habitats and public education. Mr. Rubenstein provided an additional $4.5 million donation in fall 2015.

The gift allowed the Zoo’s animal care and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s scientific team to proceed with the five-year science plan established with their Chinese colleagues from the China Wildlife Conservation Association. The science plan had specific goals: to examine the creation and impact of corridors to link fragmented habitats that will benefit giant pandas and other wildlife species, including promoting genetic diversity; examine how to restore habitats, especially those where pandas appear to be making a comeback; provide advice on giant panda reintroduction; examine the potential impact of transmissible diseases on giant pandas and other wildlife species, including providing advice on implementing new programs associated with a Wildlife Disease Control Center being built in Sichuan Province; and continue research on giant panda reproduction and management, because, although there has been major success in Chinese breeding centers, some pandas still experience reproductive challenges.

In 2020, Mr. Rubenstein pledged a $3 million gift to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, funding its giant panda research and conservation program through the end of 2023. As per the Zoo’s original agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association, any cub born to Mei and Tian would be sent to a breeding center in one of the panda reserves in China sometime after the cub turned two years old. In April 2007, it was determined that Tai Shan would remain at the Zoo an additional two years past his second birthday, which was July 9, 2007. This extension allowed Tai Shan to become an adolescent bear in front of his fans. What’s more, Zoo scientists were able to continue their studies of his growth and development to document changes during this little-known stage of a panda’s life.

On February 2010, Tai Shan was sent back to China, per the loan agreement, to a breeding center in Bifengxia, China. The new loan, which was agreed upon in 2010, states that any cub born at Zoo will stay for four years. Bao Bao, Mei Xiang’s second surviving cub born Aug. 23, 2013, departed for China on Feb. 21, 2017. Bei Bei, Mei Xiang’s cub born Aug. 22, 2015, departed the Zoo for China Nov. 19, 2019.

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