Wakayama park trumpets success with its panda-breeding program

by Noriko Kawamura

Kyodo

While the giant pandas at Tokyo’s famous Ueno Zoo seem to be having a tough time breeding, there have been no such problems at an animal theme park in Wakayama Prefecture, where a number of panda cubs have been born in recent years.

The keys to success at Adventure World park in Shirahama are: an attentive yet laid-back approach by zookeepers who make full use of the natural environment to raise pandas, and the outstanding “innate character” of its male panda, experts said.

Adventure World has been involved in panda breeding since 1994 and is the Japanese branch of China’s Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.

In 1997, the original female died, leaving the park with just the male. But in 2000, another female panda that had been brought to the park from China gave birth to the zoo’s first cub, followed by another successful birth in 2001. The park has seen a total of eight births resulting in 12 cubs, all of which have survived — the most recent addition being Yuhin, born last August to 12-year-old Rauhin.

This figure is even more remarkable when one considers that on average about 60 percent to 70 percent of panda cubs die within a week of birth.

Female giant pandas have a very narrow window for conception. They are usually in estrus for only about two weeks between February and May, and during that period are fertile for only several days.

But 20-year-old male panda Eimei, who has fathered 11 of the cubs born at the park so far, is an outstandingly “impressive male” that has managed to impregnate his partner almost every year, according to Mitsuhiro Takahama, the park’s public relations officer.

Adventure World’s zookeepers believe that Eimei is able to detect physiological and behavioral signs in the female pandas and waits for the perfect timing when the female is most receptive to mating, they said.

Eimei would be around 60 years old in human years, but the zookeepers said they are hopeful he will continue to sire more cubs.

In the beginning, the Wakayama park took advice from the Chinese side on how to raise panda cubs, such as feeding the mother soup made with fresh carp so she would produce more milk, and making straw beds for the cubs to sleep on as they have little body hair.

“Nowadays we don’t do anything special,” said Norikatsu Yasuda, one of the zookeepers in charge of caring for the pandas. “What’s important is to create an environment for the pandas that is as close to nature as possible.”

At Adventure World, the zookeepers keep watch around-the-clock from outside the enclosure for the first three months of a newborn’s life. If the mother panda dozes off with the baby in her arms and it looks like the cub is about to fall out, the keeper will wake the mother up and make her aware of the situation.

In the case of twins, the zookeepers put the cubs in incubators alternately because mother pandas normally only tend to one cub.

Located near the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by the rich forests of the Kii Peninsula, the park is blessed with an abundance of fresh clean air and mineral-rich water resources. It is also easy to secure ample supplies of the various bamboo needed to feed them.

“I guess the pandas are happy here as we can get high quality bamboo, which is a must for pandas, and the climate resembles that in Chengdu,” Takahama said with a smile.