For 40 years, giant pandas have been the star attraction at the National Zoo. Relive their roly-poly history in this portfolio.
Sitting next to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai at dinner in Beijing in February 1972, First Lady Patricia Nixon mentioned her fondness for giant pandas. Eager for better relations with the U.S., Zhou knew just what to say: “I’ll give you some.”
He did. Ling-Ling (a female) and Hsing-Hsing (a male) arrived at the Zoo soon afterward, and Mrs. Nixon formally welcomed them on April 16. The nation’s capital has never been the same since.
Over the next 20 years, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing produced five cubs, none of which lived very long. Those heartbreaks, and the hunger for a cub, helped spur Zoo scientists to become pioneers in exploring the still-mysterious workings of giant panda reproduction.
That research effort outlived Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing and bore fruit with the Zoo’s next pair of pandas, Mei Xiang (a female) and Tian Tian (a male). They arrived in 2000. Five years and several artificial insemination procedures later, Mei Xiang gave birth to a male, Tai Shan. He quickly became the apple of Washington’s eye, which shed tears when he departed in 2010 for a reserve in China.
Today, the Zoo continues its efforts at producing a new cub. This is no small challenge, given that giant pandas ovulate just once a year, for 24 to 72 hours. To identify the opening of that tiny window, animalcare staff carefully watch Mei Xiang for any sign of estrus, and scientists monitor hormones in her urine. At press time, a new breeding season was just beginning. Visit nationalzoo.si.edu to watch the unfolding of this newest chapter in the Zoo’s proud panda history.
Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived at the Zoo in 2000 and have remained here since. Unlike the Zoo’s first pair of pandas, the new set is on loan. In exchange, the Zoo contributes funds and expertise toward conservation efforts in China.
Tian Tian and Mei Xiang each consume more than 50 pounds of bamboo a day. This mass consumption is necessary because bamboo—the giant panda’s staple—offers little nutrition. Zoo pandas also receive high-fiber biscuits and produce.
The Cub Who Lived
At 3:41 a.m. on July 9, 2005, Mei Xiang gave birth to a hairless, tiny cub later named Tai Shan. He did what no panda offspring at the zoo had ever done—survive. Just shy of a month later, when this image was taken, Tai Shan weighed 1.82 pounds.
Each year, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian—who generally live apart, as giant pandas do in the wild—come together to mate. To boost the chances of conception, Zoo staff also artificially inseminate Mei Xiang.
Each day, dedicated volunteers called Panda Watchers monitor the black-and-white bear’s behavior via closed-circuit television. Over the years, they’ve amassed mountains of data on the species, which is notoriously difficult to study in the wild.
Zang Chunlin, secretary general of the China Wildlife Conservation Association, and Dennis Kelly, director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, signed an agreement on January 20, 2011. It extended the Zoo’s giant panda program by five years.
SIDEBAR: Support for Science
Last December, David M. Rubenstein, a Smithsonian Regent, donated $4.5 million to support the Zoo’s work with giant pandas. His generous gift will fund conservation efforts in China, reproductive science, professional training programs, giant panda care at the Zoo, upgrades to the Zoo habitats, and public education.