Panda cubs Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue (photo: Toronto Zoo)

Everything You Want to Know About the Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo Giant Pandas

By AMA Staff

Starting in May, Cowtown will welcome a different kind of emblematic animal, as four giant pandas take up residence at the Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo. The black-and-white bears—Er Shun and Da Mao, as well as cubs Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue—are not only symbols of friendly Canada-China relations, they also represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Albertans to see in-person these icons of the global animal-conservation movement.

The zoo spent $14.5 million to transform its old elephant and rhino enclosures into a “Panda Passage.” Upon entry, visitors will encounter interpretive displays that give context to their impending panda sighting. The animals themselves will be housed in three habitats—two indoor spaces, as well as a larger outdoor area.

“We designed the exhibit spaces based on the pandas’ natural habitat,” says Colleen Baird, the zoo’s general curator. “The spaces are very lush, with lots of trees and bamboo, water, and places for them to climb and play.”

Them especially means the two cubs, Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue, who were born in 2015 at the Toronto Zoo. They’ll be a big attraction in Calgary throughout 2018, but will return to China next year. Though they’ll be missed, their departure has a practical purpose: Baird says the zoo hopes to focus on breeding Er Shun; extra room will be needed if she gives birth to more cuddly cubs.

For giant pandas, however, making babies is no sure thing. Females have just one reproductive cycle per year, typically in the early spring; it lasts for 72 hours at most. Which means that, starting in 2019, Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo staff will be watching for signs that Er Shun is receptive to (artificial) insemination: Among other things, she’ll take more soaking baths, Baird says. Blood samples will also be drawn, for a more scientific measure of the “window of opportunity.”

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According to Baird, this limited reproductive period is “one of the reasons why pandas aren’t so successful in the wild. Their breeding strategy is very restricted.”

Another thing that’s restricted? Giant pandas’ diet. They get almost all of their nutrients from one source—bamboo. While there are more than two-dozen varieties of bamboo, pandas are very discerning: They only eat a few types of the plant at a given time, and even then they’ll reject much of the bamboo they’re offered. A single bear may be given as much as 50 kilograms of bamboo per day, but eat barely 20 percent of that amount.

That’s why the Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo will be importing the plant from multiple sources. “We have to have a variety of bamboo options in case one isn’t palatable to them anymore,” Baird says.

Because bamboo is essentially giant pandas’ lone food source, the animals are particularly vulnerable to deforestation. The World Wildlife Fund estimates there are fewer than 1,900 pandas remaining in the wild. So in addition to breeding the bears, panda programming in Calgary—and at zoos around the world—also aims to raise awareness about the importance of conservation.

These efforts aren’t exclusive to pandas: The Calgary Zoo’s Land of Lemurs habitat, which opened last year, also focuses on animals whose already restricted habitat is under continual threat. And the zoo is home to a number of species that are vulnerable in our own backyard, including whooping cranes, Vancouver Island marmots, burrowing owls and more.

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With cute and cuddly pandas as the stars of the show, Baird hopes to convey the broader message of conservation to all zoo visitors.

“For Calgary, the last time we had pandas here was in 1988, so there’s a bit of nostalgia wrapped up in all this too,” Baird says. “It’s the people who saw the pandas in ’88, as kids, who now get to bring their kids—and see how we’ve grown as a zoo community and conservation institution.”

In addition to giant pandas’ discriminating tastes and constricted potential for procreation, here are a few more ways the animals are exceptionally unique.

• On each forelimb, Pandas have an enlarged wrist bone that functions as an opposable thumb. These “thumbs” help them to better grasp and eat stalks of bamboo.

• Pandas are born blind and with little hair, and typically weigh less than 200 grams. Because of their extreme vulnerability, Chinese tradition dictates that cubs are not named until they’re 100 days old.

• Despite their size—adults have grown to be up to 330 pounds—pandas are excellent tree climbers. And they can swim, too.