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The demanding path to raising a panda cub in captivity

The cubs of giant pandas are adorable fluff balls that squeak and squeal, but the vulnerable species is incredibly tricky to breed and raise in captivity.

Fortunately, in the last 20 years, China has successfully tackled three of the biggest problems holding the giant panda back. Through research and experimentation, researchers at China’s breeding centres have discovered how to encourage captive pandas to mate, how to make sure the pregnancy is successful, and how to keep the panda cubs alive once they’ve been born.

For mating, they found offering females a choice of mate as well as enriching panda diets led to a better chance of successful mating. A panda pregnancy ranges from 73-324 days, depending on the weight of the mother panda and conditions she experiences during pregnancy. This knowledge, backed by medical advancements in artificial insemination, has allowed for more successful pregnancies in captive pandas.

Meanwhile, pandas often give birth to twins, and mothers usually choose to nurture only the stronger cub, resulting in the other twin’s death. Panda keepers have found a way to save this cub by ‘sharing custody’. Periodically, the keepers will swap out the infants, caring for one themselves while the other is with the mother. This way, every cub has a chance to survive.

Also, when in human care, the keepers must frequently massage the gut of the cub to help stimulate bowel movements, as infant pandas are unable to defecate without assistance.

All of these practices have led to a spike in the panda’s survival rates in captivity, from 30 per cent in the Sixties, to the 90-per cent survival rate of today.

More recently, the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda has made another breakthrough: it’s the only centre in the world successfully to breed pandas and then release them into the wild. Five pandas have been released since 2006, though two have died.

Before release, the pandas must go through a series of trials meant to test their abilities to survive in the wild, while avoiding human interference as much as possible.

View the original video here.

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