The San Diego Zoo has had a love affair with giant pandas ever since two of the black-and-white bears came to visit in 1987 for 100 days. After years of red tape and tons of application paperwork, the Zoo and China agreed on a 12-year research loan of two giant pandas, Bai Yun and Shi Shi, who arrived at the Zoo in 1996. A brand-new exhibit area was built for our panda guests, which has since been expanded and renovated and is now called the Giant Panda Research Station. In 2008, our panda loan was extended for another five years and was renewed in 2013. Of the six pandas born at our zoo, five now live in China, per our loan agreement, where they continue to make us proud!
The San Diego Zoo is currently home to three giant pandas: Bai Yun, Gao Gao, and Xiao Liwu. We grow about 70 different kinds of bamboo and harvest over 700 pounds of bamboo for our pandas every week. It’s a good thing bamboo is a hearty, fast-growing plant! Pandas are powerful and unpredictable wild animals. Our keepers use protected contact with the adult pandas, which means there is always a barrier between panda and keeper. Pandas look cuddly, but they are members of the bear family and should be respected, just as you would respect another bear. Here's some fun info about each one!
Our adult female panda, Bai Yun, was born in September 1991 in a facility in Wolong, China, and was raised by her mother, Dong Dong. Her weight ranges from 198 to 220 pounds (90 to 100 kilograms).
Bai Yun is a wonderful ambassador for her species, helping us learn about panda behavior, pregnancy and birth, and maternal care. She’s the mother of Hua Mei, the first surviving giant panda born in the United States. Hua Mei joined the breeding population in China in 2004 and is a mother of eight cubs, including three sets of twins. Bai Yun has been a successful mother of five more cubs, in the meantime: three males and two females. They are: Mei Sheng, 2003; Su Lin, 2005; Zhen Zhen, 2007; Yun Zi, 2009; and Xiao Liwu, 2012, currently living at our Giant Panda Research Station.
Keepers and observers all describe Bai Yun as curious, unpredictable, and mischievous. She sometimes tries to get her keepers to play with her. Bai Yun spends a lot of time checking out the toys she's given to play with: things like large Boomer Balls with apples or carrots inside, a burlap sack stuffed with hay, and fruit-cicles (tubs of apple slices frozen in water). She also seems to enjoy anything scented with cloves, pine, or Polo cologne.
Even when she was younger, Bai Yun climbed things. Her name means white cloud, which is appropriate for our tree climber. There are plenty of bent and broken branches in the trees of the enclosures, as proof of her activity. Those rugged climbing structures were constructed for the pandas. Once Bai Yun does get up in a tree, she most likely will fall asleep.
For treats, Bai Yun likes apple slices best. Once she’s finished off the apples, she'll eat her other food, which always includes leafeater biscuits and bamboo.
Gao Gao is our adult male panda. The Chinese word gao translates to “big” in English. In the winter of 1992, Gao Gao was rescued from the wild with bite wounds on his left ear, and he was having trouble walking. He was brought to China’s Fengtongzhai Nature Reserve Rescue Center in Sichuan Province. It was estimated that he was less than a year old. Since a panda cub typically stays with its mother for up to 18 months, Gao Gao needed some help.
In 1996, he was returned to the wild. But within a few months, he began wandering into local villages and raiding their crops. It became apparent that Gao Gao was not a good candidate for release, so he was relocated to China’s Wolong Panda Conservation Center, an organization that the San Diego Zoo has worked with for more than 15 years.
In January 2003, Gao Gao arrived in San Diego and spent 30 days in quarantine at the Zoo’s hospital, where veterinarians determined he was in good health. Today his weight is around 180 pounds (about 82 kilograms), which is a bit small for an adult male panda. He is missing a part of one ear, due to his earlier circumstance.
Gao Gao is known for his energy and high level of interest in the world around him, in other pandas, and in his keepers. He seems to enjoy the presence of his keepers and is cooperative and willing to work on his training, even if he does get easily distracted.
Just as pandas in the wild do, Gao Gao scent marks his enclosure and his off-exhibit bedroom areas. Scent marking is important for male pandas, as they define their territory by marking trees and rocks, and Gao Gao doesn’t hesitate to claim any place as his own.
Gao Gao has proven to be a successful mate for Bai Yun, our adult female. He fathered five of her cubs: Mei Sheng, Su Lin, Zhen Zhen, Yun Zi, and Xiao Liwu. But like all male pandas, Gao Gao is an uninvolved father. After mating, the pandas return to their solitary lifestyles, and panda females raise their cubs alone.
Our newest panda was born on July 29, 2012. Panda fans and supporters all over the world have followed the cub's progress online through our blogs, video clips, and live Panda Cam. Mr. Wu, as his keepers affectionately call him, can be seen on exhibit daily. Keepers are now training him for blood draws and blood pressure checks. They say he is the smartest of the six cubs raised here!
Giant pandas face big problems
Today, only around 1,600 giant pandas survive on Earth. There are several reasons why they are endangered:
Habitat destruction— Unfortunately for pandas, China’s forests have changed. The country has more than a billion people. And like us, those people have built roads, homes, cities, and farms. They mine, harvest trees, and use other natural resources. The giant panda’s range shrunk as trees were removed in logging operations and land was cleared for farming. In fact, panda-suitable habitat decreased by half between 1974 and 1985.
Populations of pandas have become small and isolated, hemmed in by cultivation. Some panda habitat has literally been encircled by farms, villages, and business sites—creating “islands” between which pandas can’t safely move without coming upon human communities or crossing dangerous highways. In some pockets, very few pandas are found. These animals are isolated and cut off from other sources of bamboo—and from other pandas.
In some areas, forest clear-cutting has completely removed all large trees—and all appropriate tree and rock den sites. Without a protective den, panda cubs are more susceptible to cold, disease, and predators.
Low reproductive rate— Pandas like to be by themselves most of the year, and they have a very short breeding season, when a male looks for a female to mate with. Females give birth to one or two cubs, which are very dependent on their mother during the first few years of life. In the wild, mother pandas care for only one of the young. In panda facilities in China, keepers help to hand raise any twin cubs; one baby is left with the mother and the keepers switch the twins every few days so each one gets care and milk directly from the mother.
Bamboo shortages— When bamboo plants reach maturity, they flower and produce seeds before the mature plant dies. The seeds grow slowly into plants large enough for pandas to eat. Giant pandas can eat 25 different types of bamboo, but they usually eat only the 4 or 5 kinds that grow in their home range. The unusual thing about bamboo is that all of the plants of one species growing in an area bloom and die at the same time. When those plants die, pandas must move to another area. This is why good panda habitat should have several different species of bamboo.
Hunting— When hunters set snares for other animals, like musk deer, the traps can kill pandas instead.
Panda protection efforts in China began back in 1957, and in 1989, the Chinese Ministry of Forestry and the World Wildlife Fund formulated a management plan for the giant panda and its habitat. It called for reducing human activities in panda habitat, managing bamboo habitat, extending the panda reserve system, and maintaining captive populations of pandas.
China's Natural Forest Conservation Program of 1998 provides protection to all remaining forests throughout the panda’s range, which covers about 5.7 million acres (2.3 million hectares).
China has set up 65 panda reserves that protect panda habitats from further development. Some are off limits to people completely, while others are shared-use areas like our national forests. Natural corridors connect some reserves to help keep panda populations together.
Today, China is currently gaining forestland. The government has started policies like the “Grain-to-Green” program, which gives grain and cash to farmers who abandon farming on steep slopes and replant these areas for natural forests and grasslands. But we’re still not sure if these newly forested areas are suitable for pandas.
It takes an international effort
Back in the 1990s, biologists didn't know if they could save pandas from extinction. Little was known of their behavior in the wild, and pandas did not reproduce well in zoos. Then, San Diego Zoo Global partnered with Chinese colleagues at panda preserves to create a conservation strategy. We developed early-detection pregnancy tests, as well as a milk formula for panda cubs that raised survival rates from zero to 100 percent. Now, we also use GPS technology to track pandas in the wild and learn how far they range. In 2010, we reached the milestone number of 300 pandas in zoos worldwide and breeding centers in China, which researchers believe will ensure a self-sustaining population. We are definitely boosting panda survival rates!
There is still much that we don't know about pandas. Our researchers collect two or more hours of data on our pandas' behavior several days a week, and each breeding season, they also collect physiological data. We've learned a lot about basic panda husbandry, veterinary care, and nutrition; panda reproduction; the importance of environmental enrichment; and the significance of chemical communication, or how pandas’ respond to the odors of other pandas. By gathering data at the San Diego Zoo, where the animals are easy to observe, we gain an understanding of what these animals need to survive in the wild.
Working together with Chinese panda experts may help increase the number of giant pandas and ensure the future survival of the giant panda population. A giant panda milk formula created by the Zoo's nutritionist, and a hand-rearing technique developed by the Chinese called "twin swapping," have transformed the survival rate of nursery-reared panda cubs in China from 0 to 95 percent. The giant panda breeding rate at the Wolong Breeding Center in China increased dramatically following multiyear collaborations with the San Diego Zoo. Work by our scientists has advanced pregnancy diagnosis, and the captive population of pandas has reached the milestone of 300 bears, the minimum necessary to sustain genetic diversity for the next 100 years.
In 2012, we were honored to receive the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' International Conservation Award along with the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, Memphis Zoo, and Zoo Atlanta for our "Scientific Approaches to Conservation of Giant Pandas and Their Habitat."
With wild populations stabilizing and even increasing, the giant panda may now be a candidate for downlisting from endangered to threatened status.
What YOU can do to help pandas
People ask us every day how they can help save pandas. You can make a big impact by making some simple changes in your daily lifestyle, like knowing where the products you purchase come from, choosing accordingly, and buying fewer things or items with minimal packaging. You can help by choosing wood products that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an independent, non-governmental, not-for-profit organization that promotes the responsible management of the world’s forests. FSC-certified forest products are from responsibly harvested and verified sources. Look for the FSC certification on bamboo products, too.
You can help us bring pandas and other species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.