Chinese Report Success in Breeding Captive Giant Pandas

A giant panda eats bamboo at the Beijing zoo in China, 20 April 2011. A new study indicates that China has made great strides in breeding giant pandas, which are notorious for their low sex drive. EPA/DIEGO AZUBEL

BEIJING  — A new study indicates that China has made great strides in breeding giant pandas, notorious for their low sex drive, which has, in turn, contributed to their listing as an endangered species.

Led by Wei Fuwen from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a team of Chinese researchers genotyped 240 captive giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) at four breeding stations in China. They found “high levels” of genetic diversity and “low levels” of inbreeding, concluding that “the captive population is genetically healthy and deliberate further genetic input from wild animals is unnecessary.”

Their study was published in the Oxford-based scientific journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

Giant panda conservation efforts have presented giant challenges to the animals’ native China, Li Desheng, from the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda in Wolong, told dpa in Beijing.

“Breeding pandas is very difficult,” he said, noting that it had taken 20 years to develop the necessary techniques. Before that, in the 1980s and 90s, scientists studied the black-and-white bears’ habitat and habits.

Giant pandas reach 1.8 metres long and 90 centimetres tall at the shoulder, with males weighing up to 160 kilograms. They live in a few mountain ranges in central China. Forest clearing for farming and other development has deprived them of their previous lowland habitat.

There are about 1,600 left in the wild. More than 300 live in captivity around the world, mainly in China.

In recent years, the Chinese government has promoted wildlife sanctuaries for giant pandas, as well as breeding in captivity at state-run research centres. A national symbol, the bears, along with dragons, often serve as emblems for Chinese government agencies and Chinese companies. During the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, one of the five official mascots was a giant panda.