How do you successfully breed a bear under human care that is solitary, only associates with others to mate for not more than three days once a year, and produces an average of one cub every two years?
Oh, and not forgetting that there are only about 1,600 of them left in the wild.
The population of wild giant pandas is on the decline mainly due to habitat degradation. Pandas depend largely on hundreds of square metres of bamboo forests for their source of food, which undergo cycles of mass flowering and death. When entire forests of bamboo die off, pandas move on to other bamboo forests to feed.
However, when large areas of land are cleared for agriculture purposes, these habitat areas become fragmented, leaving pandas with nothing to eat and nowhere to move on to when their bamboo forest habitats complete their natural cycles of flowering and dying-off.
With such challenges in the wild, these solitary bears face lower chances of finding mates, and less opportunities to breed.
With 300 pandas kept under human care by zoos around the world, it is a race against the biological clock during the annual panda breeding season. While the panda breeding season is typically from February to May, female pandas, like Jia Jia, ovulate for only 24 to 72 hours. It’s a tiny window of opportunity for natural mating to take its course.
Naturally, science has a plan – artificial insemination (ironically); and as the first step for the plan, we needed panda sperm. Lots of it.
It was a bright Tuesday morning, in a sun-bathed examination room filled with an efficient team of panda keepers, veterinarians and human reproductive specialists. A sedated Kai Kai on a metal table breathed rhythmically as the electroejaculcator machine and prostate probe were prepared for the procedure.
And then it happened – he peed.
Keepers help vets to express Kai Kai’s urine before every electroejaculation (e-ejaculation) procedure to avoid contaminating the sperm samples. Basically, urine kills sperms.
A few jars full of urine later, Kai Kai was finally ready for the e-ejaculation. Keepers gathered closer to hold down his limbs, as the vets took their places – one holding the probe that will deliver the electric pulses to stimulate ejaculation, and another at the machine to control the rhythm of the pulses.
The pulses were delivered in timed sets, and by the third set, a sample was collected and promptly whisked away to the lab to be quickly studied under the microscope for its concentration, vitality, motility and morphology.
|Concentration||Number of sperm per milliliter|
|Vitality||Number of dead versus alive sperms|
|Motility||Sperm with good motility swim fast in a straight line|
|Morphology||Shape of the sperm is checked (irregular shaped sperms/double tailed/coiled tail etc)|
Good sperm samples are frozen in liquid nitrogen on-site to preserve them. They will be used to increase chances of impregnating Jia Jia, should natural mating be unsuccessful.
Science has come a long way in helping to ensure the survival of this iconic species. With veterinary advancements and international help, the captive breeding programme is steadily reaching its target population size for sustainability, and is steadily progressing to its eventual goal to release captive pandas to strengthen wild populations.