I was in Bifengxia again earlier this month, this time for the annual Hug My Baby gathering for adopters from all over the world. Knowing that I wouldn’t have much time on my own, I arrived two days earlier to be with Feng Yi and her baby at the new breeding centre. I had a great time watching them interact. His weight has increased almost five times since I last saw him two months ago. She was holding him less and they were playing more. I also saw the other mothers there. As it turned out, there was more to what I saw during those two days.
A special group of three
On the second afternoon, I was chatting with one of the senior staff from the research centre. I noted that Xi Xi has two cubs with her; she’d only had a single cub this year, who is the other cub? I was told the other cub is Cao Cao’s, on his own in Bifengxia because mummy and other twin are in Hetaoping. Since he is around the same age as Xi Xi’s, they decided to try having Xi Xi foster him. It had worked and the two have bonded. Now at around four months old, both cubs – her own and Cao Cao’s – are together with her.
Cao Cao’s is not the only cub being fostered this birthing season. Back in September, Ying Hua was looking after her own cub in 10-day rotations with two other cubs. It was an experiment that didn’t work; the younger of the two foster cubs had not taken to Ying Hua. The team had then looked at which other mother at the new breeding centre would be capable of fostering a second cub in addition to her own. The choice fell on my Feng Yi. She has proved herself to be a very good first-time mother. She also has sufficient milk for one more cub besides her own son. After a trial period, she has now bonded with the younger cub. So now, my Feng Yi is also a foster panda mother, along with Xi Xi and Ying Hua. Unlike Xi Xi who has both cubs with her, Feng Yi and Ying Hua are looking after one cub at a time while the other cub is in the nursery. This is the famous “swap rearing” system that I’ve watched in the documentary Panda Nursery.
Swap rearing came about due to panda mothers having twins and rejecting either the younger or weaker of the two, and the vets needing a way to make sure both twins were cared for by mummy but not at the same time. So while one twin is with mummy, the other would be in the nursery, and they would be swapped on set days. As newborns, this was as often as two days, later every week and then every 10 days. In this way, both twins get time with mummy while mummy would also be less stressed and tired from not having to deal with two cubs at the same time. This would happen later when they are around three to four months when the family of three is brought together and the twins are old enough to play together and not bother mummy too much.
This year, for the first time, a mother rejected both her twins in Bifengxia Panda Base. These are the two cubs currently fostered by Ying Hua and my Feng Yi. The mother, Zhuang Mei, is a first-time mother but at only five years old, has no clue how to care for even one of them. Instead of hand-rearing both, the vets decided to foster the twins with two foster mothers. And the fostering system is working.
Panda fostering is not new
Bifengxia Panda Base is not the first to come up with the fostering system. Chengdu Panda Base has been doing this for a few years now. From what I know, and I could have been misinformed, Chengdu uses it as an alternative to hand-rearing the cubs whose mothers have to breed again the following year. It also puts more than two cubs per mother, which has provided great photo opportunities for visitors there to see a mother with five to seven cubs, later grown to toddlers, hanging around her.
Bifengxia has now come up with its own fostering system, combined with swap rearing, to give its cubs some good old-fashioned panda mother love. And its system is working.
Who is the cub with Feng Yi?
If Feng Yi is a foster mother looking after her own son and another cub, who was the cub I saw with her that morning and the previous day? A quick call to the new breeding centre and I had my answer: not her son. Zhuang Mei’s younger cub, a girl, was in day five of her 10 days with mummy Feng Yi. As I would be leaving in two days’ time, it meant I would not get to see Feng Yi interacting with her own son this visit. But I think I got to see something more precious: Feng Yi caring for and extending her love to a cub not her own.
Later that afternoon, I asked and was granted some time with Feng Yi’s cub. The keeper nannies in the nursery brought him in his little basket to the window for me to say hello to him. He was half-asleep when he was first brought out but soon noticed there were visitors looking at him. He also gave me my best birthday present this year.
Sleepyhead suddenly opened his eyes and looked at me
Best birthday present this year
Note: This is written and published with permission from Bifengxia Panda Base