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Panda Cub Dies at Washington National Zoo

The panda cub born a week ago at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., was found dead early today, the zoo said in a statement. “We are brokenhearted to share that we have lost our little giant panda cub,” the zoo said on its website. “Panda keepers and volunteers heard [the mother] Mei Xiang,...

The panda cub born a week ago at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., was found dead early today, the zoo said in a statement.

“We are brokenhearted to share that we have lost our little giant panda cub,” the zoo said on its website.

“Panda keepers and volunteers heard [the mother] Mei Xiang, make a distress vocalization at 9:17 a.m. and let the veterinarian staff know immediately. They turned off the panda cam and were able to safely retrieve the cub for an evaluation at 10:22 a.m., which we only do in situations of gravest concern. The veterinarians immediately performed CPR and other life-saving measures, but sadly the cub was unresponsive,” the zoo statement added.

There was no outward sign of trauma or infection.

The Washington Post reported: “The veterinarian, Nancy Boedeker, performed cardio pulmonary resuscitation, administered oxygen with a tiny mask and gave the cub some emergency drugs, zoo officials said. But the animal had no heart beat and was not breathing, and could not be revived.”

The cub was the second born to Mei Xiang. Tai Shan (tie-SHON), her first cub, was born in July 2005. The first surviving giant panda cub born at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, Tai Shan was sent to the People’s Republic of China in early 2010.

Marc Brody, an environmental policy expert who has received funding for panda conservation from the National Geographic Society, was interviewed by National Geographic News Watch.

Are pandas generally good mothers?

Certainly.  Almost all mothers are very good to their children and pandas are no different.

How vulnerable are cubs to being crushed by their mothers?

Very vulnerable, but thankfully this does not happen often with pandas in captivity.  A baby panda typically weighs 4 ounces at birth and is the size of a stick of butter. And mother usually weighs close to 200 pounds. The size differential between a new born panda and its mother is among the largest differences for any animal, thus making the tiny cubs highly vulnerable.

Mei Xiang is reported to have been distressed by the death of her cub. What kind of maternal instincts do pandas have?

Panda mothers are good care providers for their tiny babies.  Newborn cubs cannot see for nearly two months and cannot even crawl more than two months — so the mother must provide for all of their basic needs, nursing their babies for roughly 18 months, which is the entire time a cub will spend with their mother.

Panda researchers have observed one interesting trait of panda mothers that is telling about how hard it is for panda babies to survive.  Quite often pandas have twins, and in captivity scientists have seen panda mothers consistently choose to care for only one of the two babies to improve the chance of survival for the stronger of the two cubs.  In the wild, the weaker of the twins is presumed to be left behind by the mother.  However, in captivity, panda keepers have learned to rotate the twins back and forth from the mother, while bottle-feeding the second cub.

Are we getting better at breeding pandas in captivity?

Absolutely yes.  Scientists and veterinarians have made very significant progress with giant panda captive breeding programs in the last 25 years that have been able to better match mating pandas and huge improvements with in vitro fertilization. Today, the captive panda population is well over 300 and the health of captive pandas have improved from better veterinary care and improved nutrition by giving pandas supplemental “leaf eater biscuits” in addition to their primary diet of bamboo.

How are pandas doing in the wild?

Scientists believe that wild panda populations have been holding steady or slightly increasing from the previous estimate of 1,600 pandas based on research from 1999 to 2003.  Currently, China is conducting the fourth national giant panda census, having teams of researchers doing extensive field research to verify the location and number of wild pandas.  While China has increased the number of nature reserves to protect pandas, and instituted logging bans in mountains in upper Yangtze watershed, panda habitat still faces continued threats from human activity.  Highway construction, general economic development and increasing tourism in what has been historically remote southwest China could cause further fragmentation of the limited remaining habitat.

In the YouTube video above, Marc Brody, President of Panda Mountain in Wolong Province, China, discusses Panda conservation.

Give us an update of your panda conservation work in China.
In the last year, the conservation work of our NGO, Panda Mountain – U.S.-China Environmental Fund, has regained momentum at the Wolong Nature Reserve, despite ongoing hardships from the devastating May 2008 earthquake.  After helping Wolong with earthquake reconstruction projects (designing two new captive panda centers and the reserve’s protection stations), Panda Mountain now focuses on three main programs:

1)  Wolong Conservation Training and Learning Center at Hetaoping
Utilizing the buildings and grounds of Wolong’s former captive Giant Panda breeding center at Hetaoping, the new Training and Learning Center will provide educational programs for students and protected area personnel and research coordination for teams of Chinese and international scientists to advance best practices for habitat conservation, ecological restoration, and “harmonious development” within Wolong.  

2)  Ecological Restoration of Panda Habitat

International Union for Conservation of Nature has reported that Wolong is at the center of the largest and most significant remaining contiguous area of Giant Panda habitat.  Panda Mountain is dedicated to help Wolong with ecologically sound practices for forest landscape restoration and we are building partnerships to address issues of controlling exotic, invasive species, livestock grazing, restoration plantings of native vegetation to reduce fragmentation and improve connectivity among important panda habitat areas.

3)  Sustainable Livelihoods for Wolong’s indigenous people
Panda Mountain is starting to inform and involve Wolong’s indigenous people in habitat conservation, helping local villagers become the stewards of the protected area in which they live.  Long-term habitat conservation can be attained by providing villagers with variety of sustainable livelihoods, which are alternatives to more damaging economic activity such as livestock grazing.  Our NGO is developing a new livelihoods program to will include the removal and utilization of an non-native larch tree, propagation of native plants in restoration nurseries (to be transplanted into ecologically degraded areas), and green agricultural practices such as honey production and sustainable harvest of medicinal plants.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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Meet the Author

David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn