SINGAPORE — Singapore may see its second panda cub born to Kai Kai and Jia Jia as early as 2024, should the Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) be successful in extending their stay for another term.
Dr Cheng Wen-Haur, WRS deputy chief executive, said on Thursday (26 August) that it is in discussions with the China Wildlife Conservation Association to extend the giant pandas' stay beyond a 10-year loan ending next September.
Dr Cheung, who made the announcement during a virtual media briefing to update on the pair’s first panda cub, did not specify the period of extension that the WRS is seeking. In response to Yahoo News Singapore's queries, he said that WRS would share more details later.
But Dr Cheung said, “(It) will not be ‘stop at one’ for the giant pandas” if the extension were to go through, with the next breeding session to start in 2024. Female pandas ovulate just once a year, with their fertility period typically lasting only for up to 48 hours.
“When the time comes and if Kai Kai and Jia Jia are still with us, their breeding plan will be discussed and approved with the Chinese experts. It will very likely be encouraging natural mating, with assisted reproductive techniques as back-up if required,” he added.
Meanwhile, the years in between would be “prioritised” on their firstborn’s growth and development, until the cub gains independence at 24 months old and leaves its mother, said Dr Cheung.
That is when the cub has to be returned to China where it will join the country’s breeding programme, under an agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association.
Patience paid off
Kai Kai's and Jia Jia had their first cub born on 14 August morning after seven years of futile breeding attempts.
Jia Jia was artificially inseminated with Kai Kai’s semen on 24 April in the 47th of a 48-hour window of ovulation, said Dr Abraham Mathew, WRS assistant vice president of veterinary services, who spoke about the efforts during the briefing.
The team had initially mixed the pandas in hopes to encourage natural mating but to no success with the slim two-day window period fast “closing in” on them, he added. After discussions with the Chinese experts, the team decided to turn to artificial insemination.
“Throughout these years, we have been quite patient. We never gave up,” said Dr Mathew of the zoo’s multiple unsuccessful attempts at getting Kai Kai to conceive, which gave them opportunities to refine the techniques involved. “Practice does make perfect.”
Signs of Jia Jia’s possible pregnancy were only observed in late July, such as the thickening of her cervix wall. But as female giant pandas are known to encounter “pseudopregnancies” – showing signs and symptoms of pregnancy even when they are not pregnant – the team scheduled ultrasound sessions for Jia Jia to further confirm her pregnancy.
When a strong heartbeat was detected on 10 August, the care team was overjoyed and scheduled Jia Jia’s last ultrasound session two days later – it was good news.
Dr Cheung shared that the WRS worked closely with a small team of four Chinese experts, who took turns to take on eight-hour shifts to support them in the critical first three days after the birth of the panda cub.
During the period, the panda care team supplied hourly video updates to the Chinese experts, who could assess Jia Jia and the cub’s development and advise on appropriate care steps, he added.
From the fourth to seventh day of the cub’s birth, which Dr Cheung described as the “second critical period”, the four experts also took on rotating 12-hour shifts to support the WRS.
The two-week old cub is currently doing well in the maternity den, alongside Jia Jia who is proving to be a “super mum”, he noted. “She's a very protective, very attentive mother, doing all the right things in taking care of the baby.”
Trisha Tay, WRS animal care officer in charge of pandas, who is on a 24-hour shift to look after the pair, echoed Dr Cheung's sentiment.
With Jia Jia focused on taking care of the cub, she has not eaten anything since birth – a normal behaviour for new panda mothers – and is supplemented with electrolytes as well as glucose solution via syringe to keep her well hydrated, said Tay.
Jia Jia, which Tay described as a “very smart bear”, would nurse and clean the cub properly in order to take longer periods of rest. As for the lucky cub, Tay said it has a “pretty fat belly” after being well-fed by its mother, and is pooping well.
This has led to a decision not to separate the pair for the moment, even to examine the cub. Those wanting answers to the “burning question” of the cub’s gender will have to wait another four to six weeks when the team does a full check-up, Dr Cheung said.
Following the gender reveal, the next important task would be to give the cub a name before it reaches 100 days old, a significant milestone for babies in Chinese culture.
“We have seen many suggestions by netizens and the public has also emailed their ideas to us...We will announce details in the weeks ahead and we will definitely involve the community,” said Dr Cheung.
For now, visitors to the zoo eager to catch a glimpse of the cub would not be able to do so until sometime in December, when it turns four months old. They can, however, observe the mother-child pair via a panda cam being screened at the Giant Panda Forest.
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