Zoo may seek to swap one or both pandas in hopes of breeding a cub

The National Zoo has reached a new agreement with China that extends the stay of its two giant pandas for five more years, reviving hope that Washington might get to see another panda cub.
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2010

The new director of the National Zoo said Thursday that the institution could be allowed to swap one or both of its giant pandas for new ones from China when the lease on the pair expires in December.

Stressing that all options are on the table, Director Dennis W. Kelly also said experts believe that the zoo's chronic panda reproduction problems might have something to do with its female giant panda, Mei Xiang.

Panda reproduction is notoriously complex and mysterious. Washington's adult pair has produced only one cub, Tai Shan, in the decade they have been here.

Tai Shan, one of the most popular attractions in National Zoo history, was sent to join a breeding program in China in February.

"We've not had a cub here in the last five years," Kelly said. "What we are talking about is, what can we do to ensure that there is a cub in our future?"

Kelly said one scenario -- if China agrees -- is that the zoo could simply keep Mei Xiang and its male, Tian Tian.

But "there's some data that suggests that after four [breeding] tries, there's something [negative] going on," he said. Pandas generally mate once a year.

"Our male seems to be performing fine," Kelly said. "And we're not quite sure whether it's his problem or whether it's Mei Xiang's problem. . . . Seems to be that we're focused on Mei Xiang. But we can't find anything wrong with her.

"That's the discussion we're having with our scientists and [the] Chinese," he said.

He said it's also possible that the zoo could get a new pair of pandas.

"Over the last ten years, having a cub, as part of our research program, has been a priority and remains a priority," he said. "As much as I love these two animals, it's important that we're always thinking about the genetic health of the 300 pandas in the captive panda colony . . . all over the world."

Kelly, 57, took over at the zoo Feb. 15 after heading Zoo Atlanta, where last year he negotiated a new giant panda lease with the Chinese.

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