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China reaches panda 'target' number

Beijing -- China says it has perfected the difficult task of getting giant pandas to reproduce in captivity, a step closer to reintroducing the bears into the wild.

Scientists at the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Center have reached their target of successfully raising 300 of the bears in captivity, which should lead to the first captive-bred panda being reintroduced into the wild within 15 years, the BBC reported Sunday.

There are probably no more than 3,000 pandas in the wild.

Researchers have attempted to breed captive pandas since the first such cub was born at the center in 1963, but many obstacles stood in the way of achieving a stable captive panda population.

Female pandas are only in heat for 72 hours a year, and can only actually become pregnant during a 12- to 24-hour window during this time.

And despite researchers efforts to encourage mating, being in captivity seemingly "turned off" the bears.

Scientists have had to rely upon artificial insemination, but even then found themselves up against the pandas' peculiar reproductive cycle, where pregnancies can last for from 11 weeks to 11 months, and can remain undetected until shortly before birth.

The surge in panda numbers at the Chengdu center has been mainly due to an innovative "twin swapping" technique.

More than half of pandas give birth to two cubs at a time but only care for one, since they cannot store fat and lack the milk or energy to care for more than one cub at a time.

Whenever a cub was abandoned after birth, keepers at the Chengdu center would swiftly transfer it to an incubator then trick the mothers into caring for twins by stealthily rotating the twins between their mother and the incubators.

The technique raised the survival rate of cubs to 98 percent, center official said.

Researches say they believe captive numbers are strong enough to consider wild reintroduction programs.

Copyright 2010 United Press International

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