Since giant pandas are a threatened species, every baby is precious. So when a zoo’s bear gave birth to twins, keeping both offspring alive was of the utmost importance. But what would give the cubs their best chance of survival? The keepers devised an innovative plan…
The mommy in question is a giant panda called Li Li who lives with her keepers in Chengdu, China. As a new parent, she’s an important part of the conservation of her species. The wonderful news is that Li Li gave birth to twins.
By their nature, giant pandas don’t mate very often. For starters, female pandas might not be physically capable of conceiving until they reach the age of eight. Furthermore, their breeding window is very small. A sow is in heat on one occasion annually, and then for no more than three days, during a 12-week stretch that begins in early March.
As a result, giant panda breeding programs are important to the continuation of the species. But this poses further problems, because the two-tone bears tend to show even less interest in mating when held in captivity. Indeed, their lack of sex drive has led to some pretty bizarre breeding solutions.
For example, conservationists have tried showing the animals TV footage of other giant pandas copulating to try and get them in the mood. Another approach has been to provide the male bears with the performance-enhancing drug sildenafil, a.k.a. Viagra. But among such attempts, one or two found traction.
It helped in part when researchers realized giant panda mating habits were similar to the populous American black bears. The revelation allowed breeders to make further strides in saving the Asian species. Artificial insemination also proved part of the solution to the puzzle.
Thanks in part to conservation efforts and breeding programs, giant panda numbers have enjoyed something of a resurgence. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) Red List used to classify pandas as “endangered.” However, as of 2016, it has downgraded the bears to “vulnerable.”
Despite their issues copulating, giant pandas usually have a relatively easy time in labor. Newborns are approximately 1/800 the size of their mother, making them comparatively the tiniest birthed mammal offspring. And yet even after birth, baby bears face peril.
Giant pandas actually give birth to twins roughly 50 percent of the time, but only one baby usually survives. That’s because mommy panda tends to focus her attention only on the stronger cub. As a rule, the other newborn is abandoned and won’t survive by itself.
The reason for this is unknown. Experts believe it’s probably because mommy either doesn’t have the energy or milk to raise both of her cubs. Regardless, this becomes a problem when giant pandas in captivity have twins, especially given the species’ “vulnerable” classification.
Chengdu’s Li Li is a captive giant panda mother who produced twins, which might have posed a problem. But her keepers are implementing a plan to give both babies an excellent chance at survival. BBC Earth visited Chengdu to reveal the scheme in full.
Renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough narrated the footage, which BBC Earth uploaded to YouTube in August, 2018. The video opens with Li Li holding a cub in her arms when a noise gets her attention. It’s coming from her keeper.
More accurately, a metal bowl the giant panda’s carer is holding is responsible for the sound. As she stirs the contents, it draws Li Li’s attention. It might seem inconsequential, but the bowl plays a vital part in ensuring the survival of the panda twins.
The narration reveals the keeper’s plan as she brings the bowl over to Li Li. Apparently, the animal’s carers have been switching the cubs throughout the day. Consequently, the panda momma cares for both her twins, while likely believing she just has one.
The hardest part for the giant panda’s keepers is getting hold of the cub. While the mommy is distracted with a sweet treat, a carer simultaneously reaches into the enclosure for baby. However, it’s rarely a straightforward process, as the video reveals.
“Li Li is distracted with a bowl of honey water, but is reluctant to give up her cub,” Sir David explains. “Doing this successfully requires enormous patience from the keeper and great trust from the panda.” Eventually, though, the carer successfully separates mother and baby.
When a cub is away from its mother, it’s kept in an incubator for warmth. Mother’s milk is supplemented with formula until the two are reunited again. Meanwhile, the cub’s twin sibling takes its place with Li Li, until the time comes for the giant panda’s carers to repeat the process.
“The keeper will swap the twins up to ten times a day,” Sir David informs. “And Li Li will almost always have one cub with her.” If the twin’s mother is aware that she’s actually looking after two babies, she doesn’t show it.
Whether she knows the truth or not, Lee Lee is playing an important part in keeping her species alive. The fleeting breeding patterns of giant pandas are only partly at fault for their overall decline. The rest of the blame lies with deforestation and poaching.
Sir David reveals that the ingenious cub-switch method is a great step forward in giant panda conservation. “Chengu’s technique of twin swapping at last opens the way to a possible 100 percent survival rate in newborn captive cubs,” he concludes. And it seems the technique could indeed help to pull pandas back from the brink of extinction.