Bao Bao the giant panda's celebrating her first birthday at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC. And it is big triumph for the species program, which the Captive Breeding Program points out has been an ongoing initiative since 1955. As the national animal of China, the panda's particularly hard to breed in captivity, going years without in vitro fertilization working.
In the beginning of the program, natural methods often failed since a female panda only has a "single estrous cycle once a year, in the spring, for 2 to 7 of those days” and in that time “she’s only actually fertile for 24 to 36 hours."
Modern processes involves non-invasive procedures, including taking sedated pandas and inserting fresh semen into the female in hopes of fertilization. Then the waiting starts: up to 160 days, and even that's not a guarantee since female pandas can present as pregnant while not being so.
It takes actual birth to prove if the mother is in fact pregnant.
The babies are "about the size of a stick of butter," blind, and almost entirely hairless. Multiple births, like twins, are common. But the biggest hurdle in nature comes down is the fact the mother can only protect one baby at a time--leaving the others to die.
Thankfully, captive breeding provides opportunities for the additional babies to be cared for by veterinary staff members in a nursery, serving as surrogate mothers, when switching out the care between cubs. Staff change the cubs out in order to socialize the mother and children and imprint parenting skills on the newborns.
The past decade has seen a high increase of success in raising pandas.
In fact, over 300 pandas live in captivity and maintain a long life through medical care and observation. 300 is the bare minimum to keep the panda species alive. So Bao Bao living past the first year is very important in creating a strong, diverse gene pool to keep these gentle animals from disappearing.
That’s in addition to the Wolong Nature Reserve and Panda Reserve center opening in Gengda, China, to improve breeding opportunities. Ultimately, conservationist want to release and reintroduce the panda back into the wild, balancing the eco system once again.
And like the Washtington Post notes: so if the National Zoo wants to spoil the one-year-old cub, what's the harm? More than 20 new cameras showed up for her wake up call, where they witnessed the young panda involved in traditional Chinese traditions, two birthday parties, and a cake that would put Ace of Cakes best to shame.
Good Morning, America reports that "each tier was made from frozen diluted apple juice and dyed different shades of pink using beet juice. In each tier were slices of apples and pears" and "decorated with flowers made from carrots and sweet potatoes." And the gigantic "1" topper was made from diluted apple juice. Needless to say, the panda enjoyed her first birthday.
Before Bao Bao could eat the cake, she had to participate in a traditional Chinese ceremony. In the Zhuazhou ceremony, a panda must choose between three posters with individual fruit images. The images predict her future, almost in self-determination.
Peaches represent longevity, bamboo means good health, and pomegranates signify fertility. Placing honey treats in front, the panda picked peaches. The Zoo stated by picking the peaches, “she will live a long life as an ambassador for panda conservation.”
And the choice is appropriate since Bao Bao means “precious” and “treasure,” and she will be absolutely a treasure to the program. Just as her mother Mei Xiang is to the National Zoo. Today spoke with the senior mammal curator at the zoo, who assured the audience that the 40-pound animal’s “on-track developmentally” with an independent streak.
While the panda was enjoying the delicious cake, visitors were served Dandan noodles, a traditional cold Chinese dish when celebrating a child’s first birthday. Incorporating the Chinese dishes, traditions, and observations were a nod to her heritage and imperative to retaining a good relationship with the Chinese.
Her parents were gift from China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in the Sichuan providence. Sichuan’s one of the natural habitats for the animals. Also part of the breeding agreement, Bao Bao will return to China once she turns four.
After all the excitement, she climbed up her favorite hemlock tree and acted like most one-year-olds, no matter what species.
Bao Bao isn’t the first nor last panda bred in America, but she represents a happy future for the species.