Since March 2018, the Calgary Zoo had the pleasure of housing four giant pandas, adding them to the list of animals in its breeding program. The Zoo’s twin panda cubs were recently sent home to Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China the weekend of Jan. 11, but the memory of their time here remains.
The Chinese government’s National Forestry Administration has stated that, at the end of 2013, there were around 1,864 giant pandas in the wild — the most recent count available. In the same year, the country had 67 panda reserves. But only 66.8 percent of China’s panda population is protected by them.
Since 1996, China has been loaning the endangered animals to different zoos around the world as part of a program to re-establish the species, with San Diego being the first. But, in 2012, Ottawa signed an agreement with the Chinese government to bring two pandas over for a 10-year period.
So far, the captive breeding program for those pandas has proven successful.
Parent pandas Er Shun and Da Mao were welcomed to the Toronto Zoo back in 2013. Two years later, Er Shun gave birth to two cubs, Jia Panpan and Jia Yeuyeu.
But that didn’t happen naturally. Pandas are typically only in heat for one to three days between March and May. Adding to the complexity, pandas don’t reach sexual maturity until they are five-to-six-years-old.
As a result, Er Shun was artificially inseminated using fresh semen from Da Mao and frozen semen from other Chinese pandas.
But the complexity of her pregnancy didn’t stop there. According to the Calgary Zoo’s lead panda keeper Cissy Kou, the only way to tell if that insemination was successful was by using an ultrasound.
“Er Shun is trained for ultrasounds. She will voluntarily lie down and the vet will be able to put gel on her tummy and perform the ultrasound.”
When Jia Panpan and Jia Yeuyeu were eventually born — 15 minutes apart from one another — they weighed 181.7 grams and 115 grams respectively. And, like other baby pandas, they were almost completely hairless.
To ensure they were both kept warm, keepers at the Toronto Zoo took one of the baby cubs into the incubation room as mother Er Shun took care of the other, warming the baby by putting it in her armpit. This is called twin-swapping, and has proven to be a very successful technique in raising twin cubs in captivity.
Pandas are solitary animals and cubs will often leave their parents and siblings when they are between one and one-and-a-half-years-old. The cubs remained together in their enclosure while in Calgary, but Kou says they are likely to be separated upon their arrival in China.
Chinese scientists will now evaluate the pandas to see if either have diverse enough genes to be bred with other pandas, ensuring the quality of future generations. The panda parents will remain at the Calgary Zoo until 2023.
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