The San Diego Zoo's Long-Term Conservation Loan Agreement with China has come to a close. This means Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu will be headed to China sometime this spring as a new phase of panda conservation is set to begin.
For the past 25 year, the San Diego Zoo has been part of an international effort to prevent panda extinction that has met it's conservation goals. The news of this program ending is therefore heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time. It's incredibly impressive that the program has been such as success, especially in San Diego with our rock star Bai Yun as the helm. But, it's going to be sad and strange for the San Diego Zoo to not have any pandas, even if it's only for a short time. I'm also super bummed I won't have a chance to see them in person again before they head back to China but I am honored to say I was a part of such a successful conservation effort!
Gao Gao was the most recent panda to head back to China. He has been living it up at a panda retirement home while his offspring have been pumping out more little pandas as part of an ongoing breeding program. Now Mama and baby brother will be joining them in their native land.
Plans for the next phase haven't been revealed yet and when I asked for the inside scoop they just replied "stay tuned."
Check out all my panda posts. I love those pandas!
If you haven't been following the Bengal and Sumatran tigers who are now BFFs at the San Diego Zoos Safari Park, START NOW! I'll catch you up...
Two tiger cubs, each of whom ended up in their own isolating predicament on opposite sides of the country, have been brought together in one great best friends story!
Although unfortunate, their circumstances were quite timely and have brought together the cutest pair in town. Check out some the videos of their journey and be sure to follow the San Diego Zoo Safari Park on Twitter and Instagram to keep up with their adventures.
A few days ago, pandas at the Toronto Zoo took full advantage of the cold weather having a BLAST playing in the snow!
Giant pandas are from the remote, mountainous regions of central China, in the Min Mountains and Qinling Mountains of the Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, where it often snows in the winter months. The pandas in Canada feel right at home in the cold. While the San Diego Pandas don't get any naturally cold weather, they do get a special delivery of snow a couple times a year and they know just what to do when it arrives!
In honor of the Giant Panda being taken off the Endangered Species List and down-listed to Vulnerable at the recent IUCN World Conservation Congress, here's a video I took in March 2012 of the small, but mighty, Gao Gao being, well, a Panda.
There has been a 17% increase in the Giant Panda population within the last decade. My panda t-shirt that says there are only 1,600 left in the wild is now wrong, with the count now believed to be over 2,000 pandas! They say the panda’s dramatic comeback is largely due to research-fueled conservation efforts in China and scientists around the world that have contributed to the effort, which includes researchers at San Diego Zoo Global, which includes me! I am very proud to have been a part of that team and hope some of what I contributed during my 5 years at the Panda Research Station helped the cause. GO PANDAS!
There are still threats to the Giant Panda, so the struggle, and research, is not over. Best of luck to the panda team in keeping the panda moving down the IUCN Red List!
This story has been floating around the interwebs for the past week or two and I understand why it keeps being re-posted on social media.... its seemingly hilarious!
Ai Hin, a 6 year old panda at the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Center, the same place some of our San Diego pandas now call home, is said to have faked a pregnancy to get special treatment, including more food, air conditioning and increased attention. Chengdu reported Ai Hin was showing signs of pregnancy in the form of reduced appetite, less mobility and a surge of progestational hormone. But, it could be possible she was pregnant but reabsorbed the fetus. Surges in hormones are hard to fake and it is fairly common for pandas to lose a pregnancy, reabsorbing the fetus so it appears as if there was no pregnancy at all. Reabsorption could happen because there is a fetal defect or death, the mother has a disease which affects her ability to properly care of the fetus, there is a hormonal disruption, or environmental conditions are not conducive to caring for the baby. At the San Diego Zoo, they have seen this phenomenon with the use of thermal imaging and ultra sound. Bai Yun was suspected to be carrying twins on more than one occasion but has only ever given birth to one cub. This kind of fetal reabsorption is called "prenatal litter pruning". The mechanism isn't exactly known but could be an adaptive result of pandas not being able to care for more than one cub in natural, wild conditions.
Who knows. Maybe Panda McLiar Pants wasn't lying after all but her body decided this just wasn't the time. She's only 6 and has never been a mother. Maybe she just wasn't ready yet!!
Su Lin, third cub to Bai Yun and second of the Bai & Gao Gao super team, has given birth to twins! This boy and girl pair are her second and third contributions to the panda gene pool.
Su Lin was one of the pandas I was trained on. From 2007 to 2010 I watched her grow from a newly weaned cub to a full grown, independent panda before being sent to China. All captive pandas are owned by China, on loan as part of a research agreement. Part of the agreement requires all pandas born to loaned research pandas to be returned to China when they turn 3. Su Lin's 3rd birthday, however, was only a matter of months after the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 which leveled much of the Wolong National Nature Reserve and the Panda Research Center where she was supposed to be sent. So, Su Lin stayed with us at the San Diego Zoo until she was 5 and traveled to China along side her sister Zhen Zhen shortly after her 3rd birthday.
Turns out twins might run in the family. This was actually Su Lin's second set of twins. Her first had one healthy cub and a still born. Her older half-sister, Hua Mei, has given birth to three sets of twins and Bai Yun, although none came to term, has been suspected to have been developing twins when vets did ultrasounds during pregnancy. In the wild, having twins isn't advantageous. The amount of energy it takes to raise two cubs far exceeds what mom is capable of providing so the panda mother is forced to pick the stronger cub to raise. Lucky for these ladies, they are part of breeding facilities equipped with all the "energy" needed to provide for both cubs.
It is so wonderful to see all the success of the San Diego Zoo's Panda Research Facility's breeding program. Not only have six cubs been born in the program but they have given birth to 14 cubs of their own! So many sets of twins really help them up their numbers.
An article published last week by the Conversation UK presented the idea of using captive breeding to help the Asiatic (or Iranian) Cheetah in its fight against extinction. Captive breeding for bringing endangered species “back from the brink” isn’t a new concept. In fact, it has been done multiple times through San Diego Zoo Global alone, bringing back species which were once extinct in the wild. Previously, I have talked about the Scimitar Oryx. Also, in 1982 the last remaining 22 California Condors were brought to the Wild Animal Park (now the San Diego Zoo Safari Park) to start a captive breeding program which has been a smashing success, growing the total population to 435 birds, 237 of which are flying wild.
The Asiatic cheetah has a small and shrinking population with only 50-70 animals remaining within 15 reserves in Iran. Could captive breeding be the answer? When a species’ population count is this incredibly small this type of a program seems both reasonable and manageable. And, with successes like the Scimitar Oryx and California Condor, it even sounds achievable. But, are captive breeding programs a reasonable option for large carnivores?
Captive breeding programs like this are tricky and there is no guarantee for success. When the intention is releasing them back into the wild to live on their own, the animal has to be cared for in a completely different manner than their captive-living counterparts. They can’t be too habituated to humans and, when it comes to carnivores, they need to have the strength, agility, stamina and cunning to hunt for themselves. Both would be difficult to accomplish in a captive setting, especially without a wild mama-hunter to teach them the ways of the world. Not to mention the amount of space it would require. Unlike the Scimitar Oryx, an Asiatic cheetah program couldn’t take place at a zoo. It would need to be implemented within their natural habitat with enough room to emulate wild living while still being able to carefully manage breeding. It could be possible to have the entire population as the captive population (as what we population geneticists call the founding population) meaning the entire gene pool of the species would need to be managed. Care would have to be taken to prevent accidental selection for tameness while preserving the genetic variation of the species (Frankham et al 1986).
There have been captive cheetahs who have been successfully released into the wild. In 2006, the Cheetah Conservation Fund released a female cheetah, Shiraz, and her cubs, Sheya, Linyanti, Omukumo and Nehale, after “training” in a fenced game farm. While mama had been captive for many years, she was wild-born herself and was able to successfully teach her captive-born cubs how to hunt. This could have been the key element that contributed to the cub’s success after being released at Erindi Private Game Reserve in Namibia. A seemingly common issue which has been seen with the release of captive cheetahs, whether they were wild- or captive-born, is they have a higher propensity to become a “problem animal” hunting livestock instead of wild game. Proper “training” and placement of release could reduce this risk. As they say in dog training, “set them up for success.”
Something like this will also cost a bloody fortune, especially if it’s to be managed properly. With the Asiatic cheetah population so small, I believe a carefully managed captive breeding program could be possible as long as someone can find the funding, space and personnel needed to pull the operation off in the Middle East.
Big News from the San Diego Zoo! Yun Zi, the fifth cub mothered by Bai Yun and fourth to Gao Gao, will be following in the footsteps of his four siblings before him and making the journey back to his homeland next week. His arrival in China marks the beginning of his genetic contribution to the Panda species as a member of the breeding program. His siblings have had great success in the breeding program bringing more than 10 cubs into the world.
I am so proud of that little guy (well, not so little anymore). I was there when he was born and saw him almost every week until I moved to Texas. He is a gorgeous bear with a lot of personality and will be a great addition to the breeding program. I will miss him as I miss Mei Sheng, Su Lin and Zhen Zhen and hope that some day I might be able to make my own journey to China to visit.
It is Chinese tradition to wait 100 days to name a baby panda. So to honor these bears' heritage, zoos around the world wait until their baby pandas are big and strong at 100 days old then name them in a traditional ceremony. And, today, Tuesday November 13, 2012, at 10am, the newest panda cub at the San Diego Zoo, born on my last day of work, was named! Xiao Liwu, which means "little gift," and is a gift to us and his species. Watch the naming ceremony below:
I can't believe its been 100 days since I worked at the San Diego Zoo. I miss it SO much!
After an auspicious start on Sunday, which began with an early breeding between giant pandas Bai Yun and Gao Gao, San Diego Zoo staff had planned to give our pandas a break of several hours to rest. After the high level of physical exertion associated with breeding attempts, rest periods help recharge the bears’ batteries. The pandas grab a quick snack and a catnap and wake up feeling refreshed.
Somewhat unusually, Gao Gao maintained a very high level of motivation after that first breeding, refusing to rest. He motored about his exhibit, bleating and checking the howdy gate. He grabbed an occasional drink or bite to eat but kept his focus on his mate. Bai Yun, for her part, kept close to that gate, rear-presenting and making it clear she would be happy to have Gao Gao with her again. In order to take advantage of their obviously high level of arousal, we opted to skip the break period and allow them access to one another sooner rather than later. It paid off. At 10:29 a.m., a second mating was achieved.
Staff was elated. Both bears were doing well, we had two matings under our belt, and it wasn’t even lunchtime yet. Despite the crazy weather (it was hailing on us at one point as we watched the bears wrestling in the drizzle), our charges seemed focused, strong, and willing. Surely now that they had managed to copulate twice, they would want to take a break, right?
Wrong. Maybe Gao Gao worried that Bai Yun might have weaker motivation the next day. Or maybe he was aware of his own tendency to be a little slower the day after breeding, feeling the effects of muscle fatigue and soreness. Or maybe he just likes his girlfriends covered in mud. For whatever reason, our boy just would not settle down! He continued to pace and bleat and paw at the gate when she was near. Bai Yun continued to bait him at the howdy gate.
It was decided that if the bears were up for it, we should let them have another shot. Again the gate was opened. For some time, the two worked the mating dance without success. The rain poured down some more, and the wind blew dried bamboo stems down from the stands surrounding the exhibits. And still they worked at it. Ultimately, they did not succeed, so we separated them again to reset the stage.
Almost comically, the bears again refused to leave each other alone. Really, Gao Gao? How can you be so undeterred by the mud and wind and rain? We are soaked through and exhausted just watching you. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that you are a senior bear? But I digress.
After much debate, we opted to go with Gao Gao. Up went the howdy gate, down came the rain. They interacted for another half hour or so, but again no mating was realized. Surely, they must be done for the day, we thought. They had to be tuckered out by now. But…well, I think you can guess where this is going!
His motivation still urgent, Gao Gao was letting us know he was still very interested in Bai Yun. Some of Bai Yun’s sexual behaviors were still building in intensity, which was encouraging. However, as she tired, Bai Yun had seemed more and more slow about adopting a posture of lordosis, in which she lowers her shoulders to the ground. Let’s face it: Gao Gao, for all his vigor, isn’t a very big boy. If our female doesn’t get low to the ground, all the vigor in the world just isn’t going to help.
Maybe this was a factor of her age (“Oh, my aching back”), or perhaps the weather conditions (“It’s muddy and wet down there”). For whatever reason, Bai Yun was not as cooperative as Gao Gao would have liked, and this was a contributing factor to their lack of success midday.
Persistence pays off, however. The fifth time(!) we paired our bears, Gao Gao managed to coax Bai Yun into the proper position. He finally accomplished what he had been working so hard to achieve for the last few hours. A third copulation was realized at 1:28 p.m.
Sunday afternoon, we sealed the howdy gate between the bears and left them with a heavy feed. Our hope was that they would fill their bellies and rest. Ideally, we would like to see one more mating out of this pair, not because three isn’t a good number (it is!), but because we are interested in seeing if we could spread out the timing of their breedings a bit to ensure we catch that egg when it is released. The precise timing of ovulation in the breeding cycle is still a bit of an enigma to us, and we would like to have a wide breeding window to maximize the likelihood of fertilization. So we decided to come in again on Monday and try again.
Did Bai Yun remember to get her shoulders down? Did Gao Gao wake up too tired to try again? Did the hail return to spice things up? What happened on Monday? You’ll have to wait until my next installment to fill in those blanks. Right now, I’m going to crawl under a (dry) warm blanket and catch up on some rest myself.
(Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read this article and more about the San Diego Zoo pandas at The Giant Panda Blogs.)
I am a biologist and my life is crap!