Try not to get too excited about the rare birth of panda triplets

Giant panda triplets born in July at a China zoo are the first known to live for more than 15 days. The event is so rare that Guangzhou’s Chimelong Safari Park delayed the announcement of their birth to see if all three would survive the precarious first two weeks.

The little cubs are cute — in a naked mole rat sort of way.

The cubs were conceived naturally — a rare feat for the sexually frustrated bear — by Juxiao and Linlin. Zookeepers made the reluctant lovers neighbors so they could smell each other, a prerequisite for panda sex, Dong Guixin, the zoo’s general manager, told Agence France-Presse. Juxiao had to do special panda exercises so she would be strong enough to carry cubs. The high-maintenance mom labored four hours with her cubs, and she was too worn out to take care of them afterward. They were kept in incubators while Juxiao “regained her strength” but have been returned to her for nursing. A team of feeders is on hand around the clock.

“It was a miracle for us,” the zoo said of the birth, describing it as a “new wonder of the world.”

Previous panda triplets were born in 1999 and 2013, according to China Daily, but only one cub survived in both cases. Another set of triplets was born in 1967, though none survived.

The birth of one panda is virtually a miracle, let alone three. The giant panda is a species that is practically begging to go extinct — or at least it seems that way.

“First, their breeding habits don’t suggest a species brimming with vitality,” Bloomberg’s Timothy Lavin pointed out. He wrote:

Pandas at a research center in Chengdu were so disinclined to mate that workers there subjected the poor things to Viagra and videos of other bears procreating, hoping they’d get the idea. Zoos, including in Washington, more often resort to artificial insemination. In the wild, where birthrates aren’t much better, pandas are prone to inbreeding.

Another problem: Lady pandas are only able to conceive for two or three days out of the entire year. Those aren’t good odds, folks.

It’s not uncommon for giant panda mothers to accidentally crush their babies, which are the size of a stick of butter when they are born. “When she rolled onto her cub, 16-year-old Ya Ya fatally damaged the newborn’s heart, liver, and other internal organs,” National Geographic reported of a baby panda death at a zoo in China in 2006. “Handlers were alerted to the tragedy when the cub fell motionless from her mother’s nipple.” It happened again at two other zoos in China in 2009 and 2010.

Sometimes, they kill extra babies on purpose. “Pandas frequently give birth to twins, but they virtually never raise two babies,” Scott Forbes, a professor of biology at the University of Winnipeg told the New York Times in 2006. “This is the dark side of pandas, that they have two and throw one away.”

If baby pandas aren’t killed by their mothers, something else often does them in. Pneumonia, lack of oxygen, infection — that’s what killed four of five cubs born to Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s. The fifth cub was stillborn.

Despite difficulties perpetuating the species, people are reluctant to view pandas as a lost cause. At the Hetaoping Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda in China’s famous Wolong Nature Reserve, researchers have even dressed up in panda costumes to prepare pandas in captivity for life in the wild.

And then there’s all the money spent trying to save them. It costs a zoo $1 million a year to rent a panda from China. The fee doesn’t include the cost of caring for the animal. National Geographic estimates that each cub adds about another $1 million to the tab.  From 2000 to 2003, zoos in Washington, Atlanta, Memphis and San Diego altogether spent $33 million more on pandas than they received from exhibiting them, according to Zoo Atlanta director Dennis W. Kelly, The Washington Post reported in 2005. 

“When will Americans wake up and see Pandagate for what it is?” Slate’s editor-at-large, David Plotz, wrote in a Reddit AMA in 2013. (Plotz is famous for his periodic panda rants on Slate’s Political Gabfest). He continued:

The Chinese government charges extortionate rents for us to house, feed, breed their dumb animals. When babies are born, the Chinese take them back, and then rent them to another high bidder. Zoos are literally wasting millions of dollars on this shoddy merchandise, when they could be stocking up with made in America otters or brown bears.

Pandaphiles might point out that while they cost a pretty penny, pandas earn their keep serving as the face of the conservation movement, which raises money to save less-photogenic species from extinction.

“Bemoaning that too much money is spent on captive-panda programs is akin to shooting the panda messenger,” Marc Brody, senior adviser for conservation and sustainable development at China’s Wolong Nature Reserve, told National Geographic. “And this particular messenger, among the most beloved of all animals, has the magnetic power to galvanize greater public and political support for increased funding for a wide range of conservation programs.”

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.
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