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Monday, August 07, 2017, 18:46
Lessons from a ‘lucky’ panda
By Yang Han in Hong Kong
Monday, August 07, 2017, 18:46 By Yang Han in Hong Kong

Adelaide Zoo’s aptly named female bear lives the good life while providing researchers with valuable insight into the species

Fu Ni, the only female giant panda in the southern hemisphere, celebrating her 10th birthday on Aug 28 last year. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY ASIA WEEKLY)

Being the only female giant panda in the southern hemisphere, life for Fu Ni (which means “lucky girl” in Chinese) could have been tough. Instead she has lived up to her Chinese name, due to the meticulous care of Adelaide Zoo in Australia. 

Fu Ni was sent to South Australia in 2009 on a 10-year loan from China, together with her mate Wang Wang. The transfer was part of the international giant panda research, conservation and breeding program designed to preserve this vulnerable species. 

The two pandas were in almost cub-like condition when they first arrived, according to Simone Davey, a senior panda keeper at Adelaide Zoo. Davey accompanied the two cuddly envoys all the way from the China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Pandas in Ya’an City, Southwest China’s Sichuan province. She also trained in China to care for the animals.

Fu Ni arrived in Adelaide at the age of 3, one year younger than her male partner. This is because male pandas usually become sexually mature one year later than females.

“Being in the southern hemisphere, their breeding season is six months opposite to every other panda in the world,” Davey said. 

This way, she added, the young pandas can better develop — naturally and hormonally — into adults in order to become a breeding pair. “That’s a big learning curve for everybody.”

According to Adelaide Zoo, housing the only pair of giant pandas in the southern hemisphere has led to a completely new set of scientific data, highlighting how the environment affects the panda’s nutritional requirements and reproductive biology. 

Fu Ni is the only panda in the world that enters her estrous cycle in September and October — pandas in the northern hemisphere come into the breeding season between March and May. 

Male panda Wang Wang arrived at Adelaide Zoo with Fu Ni on a 10-year loan in 2009. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY ASIA WEEKLY)

The estrous season of a female panda only comes once a year, and Fu Ni has an extremely short window of fertility, lasting approximately 36 hours a year, which makes the chance of breeding even smaller.

But what she suffers lasts a lot longer than just 36 hours. 

According to Davey, female pandas are very sensitive to hormone changes and Fu Ni’s behavior is greatly affected by the seasons changing from winter to spring. 

“She could get quite active. She would climb a lot, (be) less interested in the keeping staff, and more interested in her own things. She will do a lot of walking around and scent marking,” said Davey, adding that this “personality” difference could last for two months.

“She then transits into either a true pregnancy or a pseudo pregnancy. Either one affects her in the same way.”

As the gestation of female pandas is between 95 and 160 days, Davey pointed out that Fu Ni is affected by her hormones around nine months of the year. During this time she will become very hungry and show symptoms of drowsiness or make a nest before she goes back to being her normal self. 

“It would be very tough being a female panda,” said Davey, half in jest.

Despite all of that, Fu Ni is still a happy panda and is well taken care of by Adelaide Zoo.

“Even though she is almost 11, she is quite playful and a lot of fun. Even today, she has been running around, playing, chasing with us up and down in the corridor,” Davey said. The average life span of captive pandas is 25 to 30 years, which means Fu Ni is well into adulthood.

Besides building a specially designed captivity area that simulates the environment of the panda’s hometown in Sichuan, Adelaide Zoo provides various activities for its pandas, including different toys and stimuli to keep them energetic and happy. 

According to the zoo, Fu Ni loves any form of enrichment that involves a food reward, especially apple, pear and panda cake. Her laid-back partner Wang Wang enjoys scent-based enrichment and loves getting a big cardboard box filled with fresh sawdust and rolling around in it. 

“Our pandas really love scented bubbles. Fu Ni’s favorite scented bubble is chocolate chip flavor, and Wang Wang loves strawberry and cream. So we give them a lot of stimulus like that,” Davey said.

“We try to make their days (full of) fun every day.”

Adelaide is in the driest state in Australia with a very limited variety of bamboo types, which Fu Ni and Wang Wang are not greatly interested in. The zoo initially had to fly in bamboo every week from Queensland and Northeast Australia, but that is not the case anymore. 

According to Davey, each day the two pandas will have at least six or seven different types of bamboo to choose from, which are specially grown in the zoo’s own bamboo plantation by its full-time horticulturist.

But the pair are so picky that the zoo still keeps in contact with different bamboo suppliers across the country to satisfy their cravings.

“They are amazing animals, I feel very privileged to have such a good relationship with them,” Davey said, adding that she is impressed by how intelligent the pandas are, and how they interact and connect with the keepers. 

“(They are) very lovely and smart animals to work with.” 

The duo has been in Australia for almost eight years, but there has been no good news yet as far as cubs are concerned. 

Davey said that Fu Ni goes through pregnancy or pseudo pregnancy once every year based on her identical behavior changes. “We do suspect that (there was) at least one reabsorption, and the others are potentially pseudo pregnancies.”

Fetal reabsorption is not uncommon in giant pandas. In 2014, female panda Tian Tian in Edinburgh Zoo lost her cub, which was also believed to have been reabsorbed by the mother. 

With Australia’s rejuvenating springtime just around the corner, Fu Ni may yet give panda lovers more reason to celebrate. 

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