Technology tackles breeding challenges for China's giant pandas
A female panda who has taken a newfound fondness of playing in the water caught the attention of its keepers at the Qinling Giant Panda Research Center in northwest China's Shaanxi Province, as they believed she might be in heat.
Researchers in the center, where a total of 32 giant pandas dwell, are busy monitoring and studying the animals' breeding activities, especially verifying whether the pandas have initiated their estrus cycle.
Giant pandas usually come into estrus from February to May annually, with April being the peak season. To create the best conditions for mating, the keepers must track the precise time of the estrus cycle.
However, there are many challenges as the cycle only occurs once a year for pandas in captivity, lasting for only one or two weeks. To make matters worse, the mating window often lasts less than a day, and sometimes only for a few hours.
Currently, there are two major methods to determine whether the animals are in heat. One method is by the traditional means of observation, and the other is testing their reproductive hormones, according to Zhang Danhui, an assistant veterinarian with the center.
The conventional method can be an arduous task for the researchers, as they have to watch over the pandas around the clock in shifts, recording their conditions and conducting analysis.
It is not an easy task for a lone keeper to follow two potential mates around into the early morning hours with a flashlight to monitor the process.
"We will pay attention to certain behaviors such as if their tails up and if they are paddling or taking a cold bath," said Zhang.
Nowadays, reproductive hormone testing, a more scientific way to reduce uncertainties, has come to save the exhausted researchers.
They no longer have to rely on their instincts and experience alone to determine the window of time for mating. Now, they can leave the tedious work to modern technology.
Once the hormones of the pandas are set to change, the center will collect urine samples and gradually increase the sampling frequency, said Zhao Pengpeng, a senior veterinarian with the center.
"It is like a race against time when multiple pandas enter their rutting periods during the peak season. It is often the case that their previous urine samples are still being tested when the latest urine samples are collected and sent to us," said Shen Jiena, an assistant engineer with the center.
"Every single minute or second matters, since the best mating period may only last several hours. Once you miss the window, you have to wait for the next year," she added.
After identifying the best mating time, the center will then help giant pandas conduct breeding activities through natural mating or assisted reproduction.
In 2020, four giant pandas were born in the center, the world's third-largest breeding base of giant pandas.
"We spare no efforts to help every female panda suitable for breeding to have their cubs. When they give birth to new cubs, it is a happy moment for us as well," Zhang said.