Pandas Getting New View of Mating Ritual

By Denis D. Gray
Associated Press
Thursday, November 23, 2006

CHIANG MAI, Thailand -- After years of painstaking research, scientists say they have unleashed a baby boom among one of the world's most endangered animals, China's giant panda.

A bit of panda porn has helped, they said.

"It works," said Zhang Zhihe, a leading Chinese expert, about showing uninitiated males DVDs of fellow pandas mating.

It is one of many techniques tried over decades to get captive pandas, notoriously poor breeders, to do it, and do it right. The efforts to understand and simulate conditions for mating and raising cubs have paid off in China, the panda's native habitat. Now comes the next test: getting the magic to work outside China.

The big day will come in January, when researcher Prasertsak Buntragulpoontawee hopes to bring off a successful mating between male Chuang Chuang and partner Lin Hui in this city in northern Thailand.

The audiovisual approach "is the same idea as chimpanzees seeing people smoke and then copying it," he said.

Zhang, director of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, attributes this year's record number of births to an accumulation of research on panda biology, nutrition and genetics while "trying to imitate nature better."

Enclosures are now bigger and contain more animals. There's also a push to keep cubs with their mothers longer to give them more natural sex education.

Scientists have also learned more about sex and aggression. The result, by Zhang's count: In the first 10 months of this year, 31 cubs were born in captivity in China, of which 28 survived. That's up from 12 births in 2005 and just nine in 2000.

Experts said the goal of raising the captive breeding population to 300 is rapidly being reached. This would enable more captive animals to reenter the wild, where the population is estimated at 1,600 to 3,000.

On the use of movies, Zhang said: "It's the sounds of breeding that stimulate them. Pandas are just like human beings. They understand everything."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company