Learning to Multiply Panda

Trip to study breeding of Giant Pandas branded an eye-opener

Issue: Jul 2010

inaugural study trip
Mr Hoon Teck Ming (fourth from right), GM of Chengdu, CapitaLand China Holdings, Ms Claire Chang (sixth from right), Chairperson of Wildlife Reserve Singapore, and Ms Fanny Lai (third from left), Group CEO of Wildlife Reserve Singapore, are among the group at the inaugural study trip
Panda being trained to do squats
Panda being trained to do squats. This procedure also allows trainer to do general check of the ventral part of the body
Picture courtesy of Ang Cheng Chye

The trip was described as “eye-opening”, even for experienced curator like Ang Cheng Chye.

“It was amazing to see how the male pandas there are trained to squat so that they can maintain the standing position during mating. Imagine the pandas doing squats as part of their training!” said an amused Ang, curator of the River Safari.

He was part of a team that went on the first of several study trips to the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda in Ya’an, Szechuan.

The trip was meant for the Singapore team, which would be looking after two Giant Pandas, to learn from their Chinese counterparts how to care for the animals and eventually breed them. The pair of pandas will be on loan to Singapore for 10 years from the Chinese government as a gesture of the close relationship between the two countries.

Time for a Check-up


Time for a Check-up
A Chinese panda trainer conditioning the panda to extend his arm for medical procedures such as blood draw and taking of blood pressure
Picture courtesy of Ang Cheng Chye
Together with Dr Serena Oh, Head Vet from the Singapore Zoo, Ang attended a 10-day training session at the Centre. During the 10 days, the Singapore team observed how the Giant Pandas are trained to be examined physically.

“For example, the pandas are trained to extend their arms through the bars to hold onto a contraption so that the vet can take their blood pressures or draw their blood. The animals are also trained to stay in a prone position so that the vet can give them an injection on the rump. So, these pandas need to be conditioned in order for the vet to do her job,” explained Ang.

Training panda A panda keeping still
Training panda to stay in a prone position for injection on the rump and checking of dorsal part of the body
Picture courtesy of Ang Cheng Chye
A panda keeping still as a vet drew blood from its paw
Picture courtesy of Dr Serena Oh

Although these techniques are often used to examine other animals, observing how they do it to Giant Pandas has been helpful. In fact, the Singapore team has plans to visit the Hong Kong Ocean Park to observe how they care for their pandas there. They are also keen to observe and learn more about the physical and medical examination of the pandas from the San Diego Zoo when the zoo sends off its third panda born there back to China.

“We can learn from the various zoos that have the experience of caring for pandas as well as about their breeding efforts so that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel,” said Ang.

Meet and Mate

As part of the breeding programme training, the team also got to witness a pairing up session.

“The female and a couple of males were separated by a wall with meshed windows. They could see and smell each other. The pandas were marking their respective yards by urinating, sometimes on the rocks or a tree trunk. There was also a lot of pacing up and down by the two interested parties. All the while, both the males and female were bleating like sheep. It was really weird to hear it coming from such a big animal!” said an amused Ang. When the female found the male she was attracted to, as indicated by her pacing along the wall of her favoured suitor, the connecting door was opened for the bears to get together to mate.”

And hopefully they would mate after this courtship act as pandas breed only once a year. The mating season is from March to May and female pandas are usually in heat between two to three days. During her heat, a female may mate with several males.

So, this pairing up session is arranged for two to three days with one female panda during the breeding season.

“If nothing happens during this window, then the female panda will be whisked off for artificial insemination,” explained Ang.

And the Singapore Zoo has had experience in performing artificial insemination (AI) for some of its animals. “We have AI in the Asian Lion, the cheetahs, the Himalayan Tahrs and Clouded Leopard. We were successful with the Himalayan Tarhs,” revealed Dr Oh. Performing the procedure on Giant Pandas would be a first for the Zoo.

Learning about the breeding process was crucial; as the team would have to help the two pandas mate a year of two after they arrived in Singapore.

Panda Cakes



Keepers preparing the dense panda cakes which involves mixing a bunch of ingredients and vitamins
Picture courtesy of Dr Serena Oh


garden
The Singapore Zoo is confident that the four species of bamboo it has grown will meet the needs of the two pandas
Part of the Singapore team’s objective during the trip was also to see if the pair of pandas would take to eating the species of bamboo that the Zoo has grown for them. The team brought over four species of bamboo with them for the pandas’ tasting.

“We just learnt that the pandas actually bite off the covering of the stem and that they feed on the inner walls of the bamboo stems. The stems we brought over were too thin so by the time they peeled off the covering, there wasn’t much inner wall left for chewing,” explained Ang.

Still, the team was not concerned as the pandas also feed voraciously on bamboo leaves.

“So, we are quite confident they will like the species we have grown for them and we are also quite sure we will have enough to meet their dietary needs,” confirmed Ang.

Besides leaves, the team also found out that the pandas like to feed on carrots, apples and panda cakes made of rice flour, soya bean flour, maize flour, ground bamboo stems and leaves, egg, supplements and salt.

Carrots and apples are also good places to hide supplements and medicines for the pandas.

More Conservation Efforts


garden
Collaborative efforts between the teams from Singapore and China to conserve the pandas are underway

Apart from breeding, Singapore and China have also embarked on a research programme as part of their conservation efforts.

To this end, CapitaLand has pledge a conservation donation to support this 10-year collaborative programme of the Giant Pandas.

“CapitaLand is honoured to be a partner in conserving the Giant Pandas. We look forward to being involved in this programme and all its collaborative efforts,” says Ms Tan Bee Leng, Vice President, Corporate Social Responsibility.

During this trip the teams from both countries have somewhat defined the scope of the research. The outcomes would be invaluable to the conservation of Giant Pandas.

Ang explained, “This would be the first pair of Giant Pandas living in the tropics. Although pandas have been on loan to Chiang Mai, the place is still 19 degrees north of the Equator so that’s considered sub-tropics. So, we will be studying how they develop in the tropics and if they develop at the same rate as their counterparts physiologically.”

Being in the tropics may have a bearing on the panda’s breeding cycle. “The mating season for the Giant Panda is triggered by the rise in temperature as spring approaches. In Singapore, there is relatively little change in temperature throughout the year so we are curious when the panda will come into breeding season. We planned to keep the temperature in their enclosure in the lower 20 degrees and we’ll have to see how that affects breeding,” he said.

Another area of research that Singapore is contributing to is in determining the nutritional values of the numerous kinds of bamboo species growing in tropical climate. This will contribute to the database of suitable bamboos that the panda can feed on. As the Singapore Zoo is growing about four species of bamboo to feed the pair, the study in this area will also shed light on what other bamboos can be grown in this climate to sustain the pandas’ needs.

The teams from the two countries are also embarking on creating a panda e-portal where valuable research information about Giant Pandas from all over the world can be gathered and accessed by the public.

“Currently there is very limited information about the Giant Pandas. A lot of what is available is mainly in Chinese because most of the research is done there. So we want to create a platform that is accessible to the world, where panda experts can interact and where schools can use as an educational tool,” revealed Ang.

According to Ang, the Singapore team will assist in translating the information into English and vice versa and the website will be managed by the Chinese team.

Meeting the Pair


garden
Dr Serena Oh and Mr Ang Cheng Chye managed to spend some time feeding the pandas who will be making their way to Singapore in 2011
Picture courtesy of Bjorn Olesen
The study trip ended with a climax where the Singapore team met and interacted with the pair of cubs that are bound for Singapore in 2011.

“The female is now about two years old and the male is three. As the male is significantly larger, the keepers no longer go into the enclosure with him. Instead, we got to feed him in the den through the bars. But we did feed the female panda in her enclosure so that was nice,” said Ang.

There is still much work to be done in preparing for the pandas’ arrival. Look out for our next exciting update on INSIDE’s Panda Journey as we take you behind the scenes to see how the pandas’ home is developing in Singapore. Stay tuned!

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