Two panda cubs play on wooden frames at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
Panda pornography has been used to encourage lazy pandas to have sex but now a fresh routine is keeping the threatened species alive. Young male pandas are now taking part in a rigorous "sexercise" program.
The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is making male pandas walk on two legs to strengthen their hip muscles and better prepare them for sex.
The dance-like routine strengthens the pelvic and hip area and also boosts the animal's sexual stamina, zoo keepers say.
"We use apples to lure male pandas to stand up and walk for a while in a standing position to increase the strength of their hips so that they are more powerful while mating with female pandas," says Yang Kuixing, chief of the 12 keepers in the maternity ward.
"After pandas succeed in taking the standing-up exercise, we would feed them apples to reward them. Otherwise, they would not co-operate with keepers next time," Yang says.
The low birth rate among pandas and low survival rate of new-born cubs are threatening the survival of China's icon.
Pandas in the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding are trained to take standing-up exercise in order to enhance their sexual stamina.
In an effort to encourage breeding, the pandas are put on fitness programs and even extra sensory stimulation. The base relies on a special odor to remind them of sex in spring when they are in heat.
"We place male pandas in the dens of female pandas and female pandas in the dens of male pandas," says Fei Lisong, deputy chief of the base.
Wild pandas live alone and male and female pandas are together only in spring to mate.
"A male panda living in the den of a female panda can feel the odor left behind by the latter which contains the information pertaining to sex and vice versa," Fei says.
"After a male panda living in the den of a female and a female panda living in the den of a male show symptoms wanting to have sex at the same time, the base will place them together in the same den. The symptoms include anxiety," he says.
The base also relies on its more senior pandas to show the way.
"We arrange love-making between two excellent pandas in front of inexperienced pandas, which have never had sex. It does work," Fei says.
More than 30 percent of pandas at the base can have sex naturally, compared with only 10 percent a decade ago, thanks to innovations and an ample supply of pandas' favorite food, such as bamboo and bamboo shoots, according to Fei.
In addition to the sexercise program, a special workout has been formulated to raise the pandas' fitness levels. "We place bamboo in different places at different time to let pandas look for it so that they can take more exercise," Yang says.
"Wild pandas have to look for bamboo in different places with the change of seasons.
"It would not be good to their health if we always place bamboo in the same place for captive pandas. It would have no exercise.
"We also change the wooden ladders on which pandas frolic during the day time once every year so that they will have a sense of adventure."
Yang, 31, who has worked at the base for 10 years, says apples are placed in holed bags so pandas can look for them through the holes just as if they were playing toys.
Set up in 1987 with just six sick and hungry pandas rescued from the wild, the 106-hectare base now is home to 68 pandas.
The base on the outskirts of the city is also home to 108 species of birds such as the lesser panda, peacock, pheasant, bittern and swan, says Zhang Zhihe, chief of the base.
The Chengdu center is co-operating with conservation biologists and geneticists from China, Canada, Britain, the United States and Denmark in the International Giant Panda Genome Project launched in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, on March 6 to sequence the genome of the giant panda.
The world has only 1,596 giant pandas in the wild and another 239 in captivity.
Results of the current sequencing are expected to contribute to a better understanding of the genetic and biological underpinnings of the giant panda. This new information will help protect and monitor the endangered species and control diseases that could wipe them out.
The base on the outskirts of Chengdu is home to 68 pandas. Photos by Patrick Whiteley
"The most noteworthy aspect of the project is that it is the first genome project to be undertaken specifically to gather information that will contribute to conservation efforts for an endangered species," says Oliver Ryder of the San Diego Zoo's Center for Conservation and Research for Endangered Species.
The first panda whose DNA will be sequenced for the project will be the female Jing Jing, who lives at the Chengdu center, says Zhang Zhihe.
Jing Jing, who shares his name with one of the mascots of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was born in August 2005.
Scientists say the giant panda is a "living fossil", because it has been around for more than 8 million years. The giant panda's genome contains some 3 billion base pairs and holds about the same number of genes as the human genome, Zhang says.
However, little research has been conducted on panda DNA until now.
(China Daily 03/25/2008 page18)