One of our first stops on our initial tour of the Bifengxia Panda Base in November was the New Breeding Center. Visiting this area of the base was a distinct highlight since we were able to see the moms with their cubs . I think we can all agree that there is always something very touching about seeing a mom (of any species) caring for her baby. That maternal bond is so special. As we toured the New Breeding Center, we were fortunate to see five moms with cubs (one with TWO cubs, but I’m jumping ahead). What we didn’t realize during that first walk through, however, was that what we were seeing was even more special than we first thought!
The New Breeding Center is an area of the Panda Base set apart from the other areas with the primary purpose of breeding pandas and rearing cubs. Breeding at BFX is strategically planned to ensure that the gene pool of the giant panda remains diversified and strong. There are a number of pandas at the breeding center currently, five of which are rearing cubs. While Na Na and Ge Ge (above with cub) were happily caring for their cubs (each gave birth to a single cub this year), we would soon find out that something more was happening with the other three moms.
On our second day at Bifengxia, we met up with Chet Chin, one of PI’s adoptors, supporters, and a long time friend. Chet had arrived early for the Hug My Baby event so that she could share some extra time with her adopted panda, Feng Yi, and her 2013 cub (who Chet has also adopted). After spending a good portion of the day photographing Feng Yi and “her” cub, Chet was quite shocked to learn from one of the senior staff that the cub with Feng Yi was, in fact, not hers! Thanks to Chet’s diligent follow-up with keepers and staff, we were able to sort through the confusion and get to the root of not only a beautiful story, but also a new step in cub rearing at BFX.
Many of us have followed Lun Lun and her twin cubs this year at Zoo Atlanta. We marveled at the birth of two cubs, watched and wondered as Lun Lun was only allowed to have a single cub at a time, became intrigued at the elaborate “cub swapping” that happened to give both cubs time with mom, and smiled when she was finally introduced to both cubs at once. If you haven’t followed Lun Lun and her twins – here is a quick explanation of what has been happening.
Although it is quite common for pandas to give birth to twins, they can only effectively care for a single cub. The younger or weaker cub is rejected by mom and, in the wild, only one cub survives. In captivity, however, there is an alternative.
Years ago, Dr. Li Desheng, at CCRCGP, developed a method of exchanging the cubs or “cub swapping”. Caretakers leave one cub with the mother for her to care for and place the second in an incubator. The cubs are then exchanged on a predetermined schedule so both cubs will bond with their mother and receive her care. The mother accepts both babies, but only one at a time. Cub swapping has been used effectively for years and has been a major contributing factor to the 90% survival rate now seen at CCRCGP.
BUT, what happens when twins are born into the reintroduction program (where mom is isolated from human contact) or, in the extremely rare case where a mother rejects both twins? In the past, those “orphaned” cubs have been strictly hand-raised in the nursury, but this year, senior staff at Bifengxia are trying something different.
Enter the “Foster” Mom
For the first time, keepers and veterinarians at Bifengxia are taking the concept of cub swapping and applying it to “orphaned” cubs. The methodology being used at Bifengxia mimics a typical cub swapping scenario whereby a single mom is caring for two cubs on a rotating basis – one of those cubs, however, is not biologically hers.
The task is trickier than it sounds. As mothers of twins will reject one of the cubs, foster moms can also reject a cub introduced as their own. The right pairing is vital. Fortunately, three compatible foster relationships have been forged at BFX this year with orphaned cubs now receiving some good, old-fashioned mama-bear love.
In an extremely rare situation (the first at Bifengxia), a mother panda rejected both of her cubs this year. Those cubs were initially taken to the nursery to be raised, but in September, staff decided to try something new. They introduced both of Zhuang Mei’s cubs to Ying Hua in 10-day rotations with her own cub. The older cub bonded quickly with Ying Hua and she continues to foster Zhuang Mei’s older cub along with rearing her own on 10-day rotations. Keepers then sought out a new match for the younger cub.
After Zhuang Mei’s younger cub failed to bond with Ying Hua, the team at the new breeding center considered which other mothers at the new breeding center would be capable of fostering a second cub in addition to her own. They chose Feng Yi (photo above), a very good first-time mother who was producing sufficient milk for two cubs. The two have proven to be compatible and Feng Yi is successfully rearing both cubs on a similar 10-day rotation.
Remember I mentioned a mom with TWO cubs at the beginning of this post. Well, meet Xi Xi. While Feng Yi and Ying Hua are, for the time being, caring for a single cub at a time, Xi Xi is now caring for both her cub and her foster cub* simultaneously. As with panda moms who give birth to twins and rear them through cub swapping, keepers introduced both cubs to Xi Xi when they were able to move around well on their own – so as not to tire or overwhelm the mother panda. The keepers then monitored her closely to make certain that she was not stressed or overly burdened by having both cubs with her. Xi Xi took to mothering both cubs at once without a problem and now has both with her around the clock.
* Xi Xi’s foster cub is the second twin of Cao Cao who is in the reintroduction program at Hetaoping.
The “foster mom” program appears, during it’s first year, to be working incredibly well at BFX. Panda cubs that would otherwise be fully hand raised are being mothered by their own kind and the moms selected for the trial are exceeding expectations – all in a very controlled and closely monitored environment to ensure the absolute best care and outcome for both the cubs and the mothers. We look forward to receiving updates from BFX as the program continues.