Nature: The sex problem
Saturday 27 September 1997
A low sex drive means the naturally solitary panda prefers to sit around munching bamboo for 14 hours a day. When they rouse themselves to action, female pandas are fertile only once a year, and then only for a few days. The male of the species is pitifully endowed and, in the case of pandas, size really does matter. The smallness of male organ is matched only by the length of the female panda's vagina. Combined with the common problem of a low sperm count, the chances of conception taking place are not good.
In artificial environments, the situation is even bleaker, with more than 90 per cent of males unable to mate. Since 1953, Chinese and foreign zoos have raised 132 female giant pandas, but only 24 have given birth. Most female giant pandas remain childless.
For panda experts, it is a challenge even to establish whether or not a panda is pregnant. In 1993 Chinese specialists in Chengdu for months thought that one female was expecting, only to find it was a stomach upset.
In the unlikely event that panda conception does takes place and a cub is born, the infant mortality rate is sky high. The baby panda weighs only around 4.5oz. This is proportionately equivalent to a human female giving birth to a 3oz baby. The new-born cub is blind, bald and looks rather like a skinned rat. When twins are born, the panda mother will abandon one of them. And even when she does try her best, panda parenting leaves a lot to be desired. When nurturing her cub, the clumsy mum has a habit of squashing it.
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