David George Gordon

If Su Lin the giant panda had thrown herself a one-year-old birthday party, she’d have had a lot of panda friends to play with. That’s because she is one of 19 captive pandas to turn a year old in 2006.

Su Lin lives in the San Diego Zoo in California. At birth she was about the size and weight of a stick of butter. She now weighs 75 pounds (34 kilograms). Su Lin is the third giant panda cub ever born at the California zoo. All the cubs born in the 2005 panda baby boom give hope for the future of this critically endangered species.

Pandas at Risk

Scientists estimate that fewer than 2,000 giant pandas live in the mountains of central China. About another 200 giant pandas live in zoos and breeding stations, mostly in China. Giant pandas are among the most rare of the world’s living mammals.

Raising Babies

“Every newborn panda is important,” says Don Lindburg, leader of the giant panda research team at the San Diego Zoo. “After they have grown to adulthood, some of the captive-born bears could be released into the mountainous wilds,” he says. Those that mate and give birth to more cubs will help rebuild China’s perilously small population of wild pandas.

“Breeding giant pandas is no easy feat,” says Lindburg. Female giant pandas can produce cubs only once every two years. In the wild, an adult female may successfully raise five to eight cubs in her lifetime. By studying pandas in captivity, Lindburg and other scientists are discovering ways to improve the odds for the precious young pandas’ survival.

Giant pandas once wandered freely across China to its eastern coast and from the country's mountaintops to the food-rich valleys below. But as more people made their homes in the valleys and began to farm the land, the naturally shy pandas lost a lot of their habitat and most of their food—the fresh stems, shoots, and leaves of wild bamboo plants.

Hope for the Future

Today conservation groups, scientists, zoo workers, and the Chinese government work to safeguard what remains of the pandas’ habitat. Many think that creating bamboo corridors—strips of undisturbed land through which pandas can comfortably wander and feed—are one hope for saving the giant panda from extinction. These corridors would connect all of today’s smaller panda reserves to create one larger habitat for all wild pandas. Dedicated people work toward the day when more of Su Lin’s wild relatives can roam throughout China’s forest reserves.

Fast Facts

  • About 200 giant pandas live in captivity worldwide.
  • In keeping with tradition, the cub is named 100 days after its birth.
  • Su Lin means "a little bit of something very cute."

Text by David George Gordon