Spring is an exciting time at Ouwehand Zoo in Rhenen. It is mating season for most animals, but all eyes will once again be on the two giant panda’s Xing Ya and Wu Wen. Last year, the two pandas were deemed too young to reproduce, but this year there is a new chance.
The giant panda is cute, cuddly and has only recently been brought back from the brink of extinction. The bears, China's national icon, were once widespread throughout southern and eastern China but, because of expanding human populations and development, now live in limited areas of bamboo forests. At the last count, there were only around 1800 giant pandas left in the wild.
To save the species, China began captive breeding programs. Attempts to breed pandas in captivity in China began in 1955, but it was not until eight years later, on September 9 in 1963, that Ming Ming, the first ever captive-bred giant panda, was born at the Beijing zoo.
This is because giant pandas are hard to breed. They have a very low birth rate of one cub per two years. Female pandas usually can give birth to only one baby panda at a time, and newborn pandas are extremely fragile.
The two giant pandas at Ouwehand, who were symbolically gifted to the Netherlands by China during the state visit of the Dutch Royal Couple in 2015, arrived in the Netherlands two years ago, following a 16-year period of consultations and preparations.
Last spring, the giant pandas, who both turn six this year, had their first face-to-face meeting. They were given the opportunity to see, hear and smell each other from close up. While Xing Ya and Wu Wen were visibly and audibly interested in one another, both animals were still too young and their meeting did not result in them mating. And since a female panda is only fertile for three to seven days per year, the staff had to wait until this spring.
The giant pandas at Ouwehands Zoo live separately in Pandasia, a huge panda enclosure that was built especially for them. They each have their own indoor and outdoor enclosures. The panda keepers monitor their behavior closely. To help Xing Ya and Wu Wen get used to one another’s scent, their keepers have been exchanging objects between the enclosures for some time now. Pandas have an excellent sense of smell and utilize scent to determine each other’s position. Males use scent signals throughout the year to mark their territory, but the females use them primarily during the mating period.
The female, Wu Wen, should become fertile soon, but when this will happen is unclear. The female’s urine is regularly tested and her hormone levels are examined to determine whether she has entered her period of fertility. Even more complicated is determining if a panda is pregnant. Panda fetuses are often too small to be spotted on an ultrasound, and it is often not until a baby Panda is actually born that the pregnancy is confirmed.
Should things go well, then the Ouwehand Zoo already has the nursery ready. A baby panda is born blind, almost hairless, and only about 1/900th the size of its mother. These fragile cubs can easily get sick and die. Fortunately, with advances in knowledge and technology, at breeding centers 90% of baby pandas can survive. After a baby panda is born, the mother panda will eat less, and will devote her time and energy to feeding and training the baby, which is very laborious, and thus reduces her health and life span.
As one the best recognized animals in the world, pandas have become global icons for conservation and ambassadors for all threatened species. Since the arrival of the giant pandas in Rhenen, Ouwehands Zoo has made a substantial financial contribution each year to support nature-protection activities in China. All these efforts are bearing fruit. Two years ago, the Giant Panda was taken off the list of endangered species. Ouwehands Zoo is soon hoping to expand the population further.
Xing Ya and Wu Wen can be followed every day thanks to a live video feed. Various cameras are positioned in such a way that a panda can be seen at almost any given moment in either the indoor or outdoor enclosure.
Go to www.ouwehand.nl/en/webcams and discover what a day in the life of a giant panda at Ouwehands Zoo looks like.