20 min read

These Baby Panda Photos Are Anything But Cute

"Ask yourself why those cubs are stacked on a rug like so many souvenirs."

Every few months, new photos of adorable panda cubs emerge from one of the main giant panda breeding centers in China.

The photographs are shared and aww'ed over all across the world. One headline called them "painfully adorable." Another pointed out a clumsy panda cub falling off a display pedestal onto his little face.

But what's really going on at this facility? And where do the baby pandas go when they're done being small and cuddly?

If you've ever seen a giant panda, in all likelihood she was born at a breeding facility in China. The Chengdu Research Base of Panda Breeding, which has been called the "hometown of giant pandas," is one of the largest of these. Pandas born at this center are loaned out for display to any number of zoos all over the world.

The Dodo checked in with Dr. Kati Loeffler, previously director of animal health at the Chengdu Research Base, to understand what's going on behind these photos.

What she said about the breeding center unfolds a larger story about a multi-million dollar industry that dupes international animal welfare organizations and the media into thinking the giant panda is a conservation success story and obscures how many pandas there really are in the wild. In other words, the real story is anything but cute.

The breeder pandas

A few weeks before the cubs at the center are born, the mother panda is moved into a cement cell with bars on three sides, Dr. Loeffler observed when she worked at Chengdu.

"They are intensely private animals, and assiduously avoid humans when they have the choice to do so," Loeffler said. "Here, they sit in a bare cell, lights on and people about 24/7, with the shouting and cigarette smoke and smells and clanging metal gates, and nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide."

This is after the male pandas are strapped down for semen extraction. "He is tied by all fours to a table, and a person hangs off of each ear as an extra measure of control," Loeffler said. "Electroejaculation works by running an electric shock through the rectum from a thick metal probe, which eventually releases an ejaculate. Ketamine [the drug used to temporarily sedate the breeder pandas] produces no block against pain."

The female pandas are then inseminated during the very brief and rare window of time when they are fertile. "A female panda is in estrus for only about 12-24 hours, once a year," Loeffler said. "To cover that window, and to be extra sure, breeding facilities may inseminate her twice a day for two or three days in a row. Each time, she is anaesthetized with ketamine, tied to a table and inseminated with metal instruments."

After the pregnant panda gives birth in her concrete cell, the cub is taken away.

"The moment a cub is born, it is snatched away by human hands, inspected, prodded, weighed, smeared all over with human smells," Loeffler said. "If a mother is deemed fit to raise her baby, she will get it back ... for a little while. Then she is prodded and distracted and clapped at and poked until she drops the cub to have it snatched away again for weighing and force-feeding and artificial incubating."

When the cubs are 3 to 5 months old, they are piled into the "nursery." This is when they go on display. Tourists line up and pay to sit with a cub on their laps. According to Loeffler, this can bring in up to $200 per person.

The business of breeding the giant panda

Female pandas at the breeding center are drugged and inseminated over and over, with apparently little attention paid to the health of the panda cubs because, according to Loeffler, panda breeding centers are actually in competition with each other to breed as many cubs as possible.

"The Chinese government rewards the breeding centers for the number of the cubs that are produced - not the health or quality - and hence they're terribly proud of these piles of pictures of these cubs," Loeffler said.

Furthermore, each panda loaned out to a zoo usually brings in a million dollars per year for up to 10 years. (Some zoos who strike up an agreement with China for one of these panda loans to boost visitor numbers actually go broke trying to pay these fees.) And tourism at the breeding centers that put their cubs on display also brings in a lot of revenue.

As adorable as the cubs may be, they may not be healthy. "Because of the poor husbandry conditions, only a few grow up to manage to reproduce successfully," Loeffler said, "so you get a misrepresentation of the number of cubs these centers produce who will grow up to be healthy."

Because of the competition between the breeding centers, it becomes difficult to share genetic material, which means that the population of captive giant pandas becomes less sustainable, even though scientists have put a tremendous amount of work into figuring out how breeding giant pandas in captivity can help bring them back from the brink of extinction.

Scientists determined that 300 healthy giant pandas could be produced in captivity, considering the genetic diversity available among the breeding pandas. The goal was to establish a self-sustaining captive population, which means they can continue reproducing without getting genetic material from the wild, Loeffler explained.

A scientist at the Smithsonian even designed a computer program to match the best combinations of parents for healthy cubs, which has been available since the early 2000s. It rates breeding matches; for example, a mother and son panda would make a poor genetic match for producing healthy cubs, but a distant cousin would be ideal for the self-sustaining captive population.

After the database came out, "the number of breeding recommendations that were actually followed was zero," Loeffler said. "And it continues to be very poor, and that's because of the competition. So if you have a male and female who are reproducing, they're just going to keep doing this, regardless of the health of the cubs."

China recently upped the goal for the captive population from 300 to 500.

"The Smithsonian made major advances in genetic sharing," Loeffler said. "But that's just not happening."

False hopes for wild pandas?

Even though the breeding center boasts of its achievements, it remains unclear how they're actually helping the wild giant panda come back from the brink of extinction.

"The whole idea for a reintroduction program is premised on absolutely nothing," Loeffler said. "China hasn't established a habitat of quality and quantity or mitigated the problems that cause these animals to be endangered in the first place. If a developer shows up with enough money, development is happening right through these so-called nature reserves."

The Chengdu Panda Base aims to rescue giant pandas "through technological virtue ... Relying on scientific and technological advances and the application of major technological achievements, 116 births, 172 newborn giant pandas were generated from the 6 sick and starving giant pandas rescued in 1980s." But beyond breeding captive pandas over and over, it isn't totally clear how Chengdu aims to help the giant panda's actual future as a wild animal.

But Wolong Panda Center, a different breeding facility, which is overseen by a different governmental body, says it has had a few successes in releasing captive pandas back into the wild. "A total of five pandas have been released, three of which are doing well in the wild," Suzanne Braden, director of Pandas International, which supports the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Pandas (CCRCGP), told The Dodo. "Dramatic changes have occurred in the program over the years."

But Braden couldn't speak to how the center in Chengdu is run. "Chengdu is under the Department of Commerce. CCRCGP is under the Department of Forestry."

Braden said that captive breeding to reach the target number of 300 was "critical for the species to survive." When that number was reached a few years ago, the CCRCGP began leaving the cubs with the mothers for the natural 18 months to 2 years as long as the mother is producing adequate milk. "The mothers and the cubs are in a breeding area not open to the public," Braden said. "Pandas International definitely advocates for humane treatment of the mothers and the cubs."

But Loeffler says the captive-bred pandas just aren't be prepared to be released from the beginning: "They need to be raised by their mothers in wild conditions and not people jumping around in panda suits."

Some other conservationists seem inclined to agree with her.

"Giant pandas have been perfectly capable of breeding naturally in the wild for millennia," Chris Draper, associate director for animal welfare and care at the Born Free Foundation, told The Dodo. "The relatively recent focus on breeding in captivity, with zoos worldwide spending a relative fortune on artificial reproduction techniques while the captive panda population in China swells, is a sideshow that risks distracting us from the genuine threats facing wild panda habitat."

An un-endangered species

In early September, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced that the giant panda is no longer considered an endangered species. But what sounds like good news is actually more complicated.

China kept boasting that their wild panda census was showing increasing numbers, but Loeffler was wary of the methodology used to determine this population. According to Loeffler, each census used different methods to determine the wild population, so the results cannot be compared.

"The first year the wild population panda census was done was around 2005, they insisted that their own scientists see the data, so World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which was helping with the census, wasn't allowed to see the methodology that was used or the data," she said.

The second census a few years later had similarly secretive methods - and it showed a larger number of pandas. "And the most recent census that was done, they added some more genetic methods and this time no foreigners were allowed to be involved at all," Loeffler said. "We have no external verification of these numbers. The IUCN had no choice but to downlist the giant panda. But no one really believes them."

For China, the most important thing is saving space for development, according to Loeffler. "They're constantly trying to prove that they're making progress despite shrinking natural environment," she said. "And that spills over into absolutely everything. Now they're peeing their pants because they've been boasting about their recovery of giant pandas in the wild, so now that they've been taken off the endangered species list. Then they just realized that, because of this, their giant panda industry might end up being less of a hot commodity."

In other words, by downlisting the giant panda, the international community of conservation experts may have accidentally just called China's bluff.

"It is clear that the battle for panda conservation rests on conserving the ecosystem where pandas live," Draper added, "not on a high-profile, expensive and unnatural captive breeding program."

"Panda breeding is a full-time, multi-million dollar industry, particularly if one can convince the public that pandas are incapable of reproducing on their own," Loeffler said. "Every year we see photographs from the panda breeding centers of a pile of black and white cubs ... Ask yourself why those cubs are stacked on a rug like so many souvenirs and aren't with their mothers. Ask yourself what is the future of all those piled cubs."

The Chengdu Research Base did not reply to The Dodo's request for comment.

Learn more about giant pandas - and how to help them - here.