August 17, 2006

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother Panda

BEIJING -- The lightest panda cub born in captivity is doing well and putting on weight since his premature birth in China on the same day the heaviest incubator-bred panda was born at another research center, state media said on Thursday.

The male cub only weighed 51 grams (1.8 ounces) when he was born at the Chengdu Giant Panda Reproduction and Research Center on August 7 along with his twin brother, who was almost three times as heavy, Xinhua news agency said.

Most pandas born in captivity weighed between 83 and 190 grams and those weighing less than 80 grams had little chance of survival as they were too small to hold on to their mothers' teats, Xinhua said.

"Perhaps knowing that it was almost impossible for the lighter cub to survive, she (the mother) abandoned him after delivery," Xinhua said.

Staff at the Chengdu center, in the mountainous southwestern province of Sichuan, then put him in an incubator and "risked dangers" to milk the mother several times a day to feed him, the news agency said.

"They spent more than half an hour to feed 0.8 grams of milk on the first day as he was too weak to suck," it said.

Yet the bouncing baby was now more than 80 grams and healthy, Xinhua quoted Wang Chengdong, veterinary director at the Chengdu center, as saying.

"But we cannot say we have been successful until he is six months old," Wang said.

The heaviest panda cub weighed 218 grams when he was born in the Wolong Giant Panda Research Center, also in Sichuan.

The giant panda is one of the world's most exotic and endangered species and is found only in China, where it is a national treasure. An estimated 1,600 wild pandas live in nature reserves in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces.

It is extremely hard to breed giant pandas in captivity. Females only ovulate once a year, with a slim 24-to-48 hour window for breeding when artificial reproduction methods are usually adopted. Infant mortality is also high.