Helping giant pandas in ensuring offspring

Fragments of forest as habitat

Giant pandas once inhabited a vast territory in southern and eastern China. However, their original forests have been largely transformed by human activities for agriculture or forestry. The result? The species now only survives in small forest areas scattered across 6 mountain ranges in Southwest China. There are currently 1,864 giant pandas remaining in the wild. This fragmented habitat isolates giant panda populations from each other. This prevents them from breeding with each other and thus reduces the genetic diversity of the species.

A challenging reproduction

If the destruction of its habitat already makes the situation of the giant panda precarious, this is further exacerbated by a rather erratic reproduction. Indeed, the female is fertile only 1 to 3 days per year! Pregnancy is then complex, with a period of diapause during which the development of the embryo “pauses”, pseudo-pregnancies that are practically impossible to distinguish from “real” pregnancies, and sometimes loss of the fetus at the end of the pregnancy. The mechanisms behind these particular phenomena are largely still mysterious at present.

Why do they need our help? 

In addition to protecting its natural habitat, giant panda reproduction is a crucial issue for species conservation. In zoos, improving reproductive success contributes to producing a greater number of young pandas, which may eventually be reintroduced into the wild. Furthermore, knowledge of each individual’s genetic heritage enables the formation of pairs in a way that maximizes genetic diversity. In the long term, the insights gained from monitoring giant panda reproduction in zoos will benefit the monitoring of their wild counterparts’ reproduction.

What does the Pairi Daiza Foundation do?

The Pairi Daiza Foundation has supported a scientific research project from 2018 to 2021, led by Dr. Jella Wauters, a researcher at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of Ghent University. The main objectives were:

  • Developing “pregnancy tests” to confirm gestation;
  • Discovering the signals that regulate embryo diapause;
  • Accurately predicting the fertile period and parturition.

On a daily basis, these studies involved collecting urine and fecal samples to measure biomarkers (including hormones), as well as long hours of observing the behavior of female giant pandas and closely monitoring their weight and digestion.


An international conservation program

The giant panda has been globally protected for over 30 years by an international conservation program established by China. This is manifested in a global breeding program (in which Pairi Daiza and its Foundation have been participating since 2014), as well as in the restoration of their habitat, the establishment of reserves, and the creation of corridors for them to move from one reserve to another. This is a long-term effort and a multidisciplinary commitment that is bearing fruit. From 1,200 in the 1980s, the population of wild giant pandas has now risen to over 1,800! Efforts must, of course, be continued.


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