Liver problem to blame for panda cub death, says US zoo
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National Zoo scientists have determined a 6-day-old giant panda cub’s death last month wasn’t momma bear’s fault, and life was returning to normal on Thursday for giant panda Mei Xiang.
The panda mother has stopped cradling a toy and left her den to spend more time in her yard. On Thursday morning, she strolled outside, found a frozen, fruity frozen ice bar and turned her back to a gathering crowd to enjoy breakfast.
Mei Xiang’s cub, born September 16, died of liver trouble and signs of lung disease, said chief veterinarian Suzan Murray. After a full necropsy, scientists found the tiny female cub’s lungs hadn’t fully developed and likely weren’t sending enough oxygen to the liver. The cub was possibly born prematurely.
Zoo scientists are trying to learn more about how common liver and lung defects are in newborn pandas.
“As unfortunate as this was, this baby and studies of this baby post mortem are contributing to our knowledge of panda reproductive science,” said Donald Moore, the zoo’s associate director for animal sciences.
Zoo keepers have said Mei Xiang took careful care of the cub. It weighed only about 4 ounces when it died. The tiny hairless, helpless creatures can be easily crushed, but the cub had no sign of injury. A small amount of milk in the digestive system suggested she had nursed.
Panda fans keeping tabs online were devastated by the death. The zoo has received an outpouring of cards and letters from around the world and some donations for conservation.
The birth was a surprise because it hadn’t been clear whether Mei Xiang was still fertile.
On Wednesday, animal keepers cleared out the bamboo nest she had built after she stopped sleeping in the den.
“She didn’t seem to miss it, wasn’t upset that it was gone,” said panda keeper Marty Dearie.
Mei Xiang’s appetite is slowly returning to normal. She stopped eating and stayed in her den for nearly a month to give birth and care for the cub. Now she’s eating about 80 per cent of her bamboo, fruits, vegetables and biscuits. She’s still about 20 pounds under her normal weight of 240.
Despite the death, the pandas still draw many visitors.
In China, a captive-bred panda has been released into the wild as part of efforts to help the struggling species, but this time with special survival training after one of the animals died in a previous attempt.
Two-year-old “Taotao” was taken from its mother and handlers and delivered to a nature reserve in southwestern Sichuan province on Thursday to brave the real world on its own, state-run Xinhua news agency said.
A previous effort ended in disappointment in 2006 when Taotao’s predecessor “Xiangxiang” died from injuries suffered in fights with wild pandas over food and territory just one year after being released.
Xinhua said scientists at the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan went back to the drawing board, devising a new training and acclimatisation regime for Taotao that included handlers who wore full panda suits to prevent the animal becoming familiar with humans.
Scientists hope that, if successful, the Taotao project will prove a template for introducing captive-bred pandas into the forests to help increase the wild population and the species’ genetic diversity.
Taotao’s mother was allowed to raise him in semi-wild conditions, imparting basic panda skills like climbing.
The panda also was deliberately exposed to heavy rains, snowstorms and even rockfalls, as well as conditions aimed at helping it to identify threatening situations, Xinhua said, without giving details.
“As opposed to Xiangxiang’s captive-bred environment, Taotao has lived and grown in semi-wild conditions since he was very little,” Zhang Hemin, a state conservationist involved in the effort, told Xinhua.
“This means its fighting capability and survival skills both improved significantly.”
Taotao’s new home is a bamboo forest in Lipingzi Nature Reserve.
Associated Press and Agence France-Presse