Why Aren't Pandas Breeding In Chengdu?

The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China has an intensive breeding program that produced 18 cubs in 2008. But that number dropped sharply to four cubs last year, which has led the scientists to rethink the program. Sarah Bexell, the director of conservation education at the base, tells NPR's Melissa Block the suspected reasons for the drop.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

As Allison mentioned, Tai Shan will become part of a breeding plan in China. In effort to boost the endangered panda population, he's heading to the panda base at Bifengxia in Sichuan province. Back in 2008, I got a firsthand look at another panda center in Sichuan, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.

(Soundbite of panda)

BLOCK: Which panda is that that's making all the...

(Soundbite of panda)

Professor ZHANG ZHIHE (Director, Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding): This is Yashin(ph). Right now she's in (unintelligible).

BLOCK: She's in (unintelligible).

Director Zhang Zhihe walked me around the panda base and talked about their intensive breeding program, a program that produced 18 cubs in 2008. But last year that number fell shapely to just four cubs. And that drop has led the scientists at the base to rethink their breeding program. Joining us to talk about that is Sarah Bexell. She's director of conservation education for the Chengdu Panda Base. Sarah, thanks for being with us.

Ms. SARAH BEXELL (Director, Conservation Education, Chengdu Panda Base): Thank you, Melissa. It's nice to be with you again.

BLOCK: So, four panda cubs in 2009, and that included a set of twins. Was it a surprise that there were so few?

Ms. BEXELL: Yes, we were all surprised. And, of course, as would be expected, we were disappointed.

BLOCK: And what's the thinking about why the numbers were so low? Is it that the moms were essentially tired out?

Ms. BEXELL: That's one of the thinking, yes. You know, with the captive breeding program over the last, you know, five to ten years there's been a heavy emphasis on number of cubs. That means asking the mothers to reproduce every single year versus what would be a two to three-year interval in the wild. And so when a mammal's body or any animal's body is reproducing, that's very taxing. So that is one of the hypotheses that we have is that they just kind of needed a break.

BLOCK: Yeah, you remember, Sarah, that we talked back in 2008 about whether the breeding cycle was too intense. And one of your former colleagues, another Westerner, used the term panda factory, referring to the base. She told us that the female pandas might be anesthetized three to six times in one day for artificial insemination. Has that been scaled back some now?

Ms. BEXELL: It was not last year. And we will see going into the breeding season. As you may know, breeding season usually peaks between February and March. And I'm right now not in China. I'm on my way back this month. And so, I'm not sure what they will decide to do. What I do know that they are wanting to focus on now is quality cubs over quantity of cubs - cubs that stay with their mom a more natural amount of time, so they have that behavioral repertoire that's more natural, making them better candidates for potential reintroduction into the wild.

So, hopefully that shift will happen right away this year. But, you know, old habits die slowly. And so, we'll see if people are able to really put these new actions into order.

BLOCK: And there is a lot of pressure too, Sarah, of getting that captive population up to a maybe more sustainable number. We talked back in 2008 with the director Zhang Zhihe about this goal of 300 pandas in captivity. Are you close to that goal now?

Ms. BEXELL: Oh, we're so close. We're so excited. We celebrated the fact that we have 294 individuals in the captive breeding program globally and that's within 50 institutions. So, essentially we've hit our goal. And what we did in our annual meeting that we have every single year is reassess that goal of 300 and whether that is still sustainable both for genetic purposes, but as well as education and outreach when animals are in different institutions - people have opportunities to learn about them. And then also preparing some individuals for reintroduction in the wild if we deem through scientific research that that is actually a necessary thing to do.

BLOCK: Sarah Bexell is director of conservation education for the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Sarah, thanks so much.

Ms. BEXELL: Thank you, Melissa.

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