Raising Cute Pandas: It's Complicated

July 13, 2016 - Giant panda cubs are adorable fluff balls that squeak and squeal. This endangered species is also incredibly tricky to breed and raise in captivity. In the 1960s, only 30 percent of infant pandas born at breeding centers survived. Today 90 percent survive. So, what changed?

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 centers 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 that offering the females a choice of mate as well as enriching panda diets leads to a better chance of successful mating. A panda pregnancy can range from 73 days to 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.

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. 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 factors have led to the spike in the panda's survival rates. More recently, the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda has made another breakthrough: It’s the only center in the world to successfully 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. China's dedication to panda research is leading the rest of the globe in panda conservation.

READ: Pandas Get to Know Their Wild Side