The Panda Paradox

The National Zoo goes to extraordinary lengths in its efforts to breed another panda cub in captivity.
By Daniel Libit
Sunday, April 5, 2009

The National Zoo's panda Tai Shan turned 3 on a warm day last July. That morning, a few dozen members of Pandas Unlimited, the country's largest panda fan club, arrived at the zoo bright and early. With photo and video equipment in tow, they huddled together on the walkway of the Fujifilm Giant Panda Habitat, awaiting the annual spectacle of the birthday bear consuming his birthday treat.

Frances Nguyen, Pandas Unlimited's founder, stood next to Ed Ginn and his wife, who had driven from New York for the event the night before. Ed wore a T-shirt: "The more people I meet, the more I like pandas."

Craig Salvas, a NASA employee, who had set up his photo equipment a few paces away, was taking test shots with his camera and adjusting the zoom on his camcorder. Over the years, he said, he had snapped several hundred thousand digital photos of Tai Shan, filling two external hard drives with JPEGs. His explanation for this seemed almost instinctive.

"You can wake up and read a newspaper in the morning, or go to the zoo and watch a baby panda," he says.

Over the next half-hour, a throng of shutterbugs filled the exhibit's walkway. Funded with a $3.8 million donation from Fujifilm, the facility was refurbished in the fall of 2006, outfitted with big naturalistic enclosures for the animals and spacious pathways and seating areas for onlookers.

Several zoo staff members walked to the front of the centermost yard, lugging along two orange-colored pieces of ice that they stacked one on top of the other to form a giant "3."

"Hi, Lisa!" a woman called out toward the yard. The zoo's panda curator, Lisa Stevens, returned a sheepish wave. Among these devoted zoo patrons, Stevens had achieved a minor celebrity, unusual for a professional in the animal sciences. But Stevens's prior experience working with gorillas, which inspired their own, more modest level of fanaticism, had prepared her to a certain extent for managing pandas.

"People thought that primates needed to be taken from their mothers, put in diapers and clothes and given bottles and be treated like little human babies," says Stevens. "People think the same about panda cubs. So my staff and I, on a daily basis, get people who approach us because they perceive that the pandas are lacking something, or because we are not treating them like human children."

While jubilating over Tai Shan -- the first panda cub born at the National Zoo to survive infancy -- was the focus of the day, the fans' excitement was tempered with the understanding that in the not-so-distant future, the cub was slated for departure. The panda loan agreement between the Chinese government and the U.S. zoos was such that any cub born here would head east not long after it had been reared. Tai Shan had been weaned from his mother, Mei Xiang, almost a year before. The Chinese had extended his lease, but not for much longer. The zoo's sole consolation was the fervent hope that a new cub might at that very instant be growing inside Mei Xiang.

Pandas are a remarkable but mysterious species. In so many ways, they should have long ago ceased to exist. The animal's reproductive biology, viewed through a certain lens, seems counterproductive, starting with the fact that a female ovulates only once a year, bestowing an annual fertility window of 48 hours or less.

"Somebody once told me this species is an evolutionary dead end," says David Wildt, the head of the National Zoo's Center for Species Survival, and one of the leading giant panda experts in the United States. Wildt's goal -- and the zoo's -- was to prove that theory wrong, even after decades in which human activity had greatly diminished the chances for pandas' survival.

Throughout the 20th century, the Chinese, in their quest to turn forest into farmland, destroyed much of the pandas' natural habitat and isolated the population in the western mountains of China. There are now estimated to be 1,600 pandas in the wild, a precariously low sum.

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