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Jia Jia the panda and its cub. The unnamed cub’s gender is not yet known, but Wildlife Reserves Singapore hopes to do so in the coming weeks, along with seeking the public’s opinion for a name. — Wildlife Reserves Singapore pic
Jia Jia the panda and its cub. The unnamed cub’s gender is not yet known, but Wildlife Reserves Singapore hopes to do so in the coming weeks, along with seeking the public’s opinion for a name. — Wildlife Reserves Singapore pic

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SINGAPORE, Aug 26 — Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) said that it is in talks with the authorities in China to extend the loan of the giant panda pair Jia Jia and Kai Kai for another term, so that they may stay on at their River Safari exhibit for a few more years.

This was announced by Dr Cheng Wen-Haur, the deputy chief executive officer at WRS, today during a virtual press conference to give an update on the condition of the pair’s first cub.

Aside from managing River Safari, where the pandas are housed, WRS also manages the Singapore Zoo, the Night Safari and the Jurong Bird Park.

Kai Kai, 13, and Jia Jia, 12, arrived in Singapore in September 2012. They are here on a 10-year loan from China.

Dr Cheng, who is also the chief life sciences officer at WRS, did not specify how long an extension the team is seeking.

In response to TODAY’s queries, WRS said that more details will be announced at a later date.

If the extension comes through, Dr Cheng said that it will allow his team to plan for another breeding season again for Jia Jia and Kai Kai, once the presently unnamed panda cub reaches two years old — an age when cubs are considered to become independent and leave their mothers.

This is also the age at which the cub will have to be returned to China under an agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association.

The cub was born on the morning of Aug 14 through artificial insemination with semen collected from Kai Kai before the mating season.

Plans are afoot to engage the community to come up with a name for the cub. — Wildlife Reserves Singapore pic
Plans are afoot to engage the community to come up with a name for the cub. — Wildlife Reserves Singapore pic

Addressing the “burning question” of the cub’s gender, Dr Cheng said that WRS has yet to examine it as it has decided to leave the cub with its “super mum” as much as possible.

“Maybe over the next four to six weeks or so, when we have the chance to take the baby out, we’ll do a full examination. Then we can tell the gender of the baby and share it with everyone,” he said.

This leads to another important decision, he said. “What do we call the baby?”

According to Chinese tradition, a name for the cub must be given before it reaches 100 days old, he added.

Plans are afoot to engage the community to come up with a name for it.

While Singapore will be able to decide on the cub’s name, WRS’ counterparts in China will still have to be consulted as a “key consideration” on their end is that there is no repetition in names, Dr Cheng explained.

‘Very smart bear’

As to when the public may see the cub within the panda exhibit, Dr Cheng said that this is unlikely to happen until it is at least four months old.

“We will not be letting the cub out until it is quite steady on its foot and can have better motor controls.”

However, curious visitors may still catch a glimpse of the panda cub from Thursday onwards via footage from a camera set up at the giant panda exhibit.

WRS also said in a statement on Thursday that it has launched “Panda Sneak Peek” — an hour-long broadcast on the group’s YouTube channel each day so that viewers may “tune in to observe the cub’s progress and the precious moments between Jia Jia and her cub”.

At the press conference, WRS said it had initial concerns that Jia Jia, being a first-time mother, would not take to its role well and its zookeepers were ready to take over the caring of the cub.

Their concerns turned out to be unfounded, as Ms Trisha Tay, an animal care officer, discovered.

Ms Tay, who alternates with another colleague to look after Jia Jia on a 24-hourly basis, said that “Jia Jia has grown and matured” in its role as a mother.

“She’s being very efficient in caring for the cub because she’s a very smart bear. So what she does is she would nurse and clean the cub properly (which allows Jia Jia to) take longer periods of rest,” Ms Tay said.

“In the early days, we noticed how she was really tired, and she did sigh quite a bit when she had to wake up to tend to the cub.

“Now she’s a lot brighter, more alert, and we’re happy that we can see the cub growing well.”

Ms Tay said that Jia Jia is so focused on looking after the cub, the new mother sometimes does not eat, which is normal behaviour in the wild, and the zookeepers need to make sure that it receives sufficient nutrition.

As for the father Kai Kai, it seems to be unaware of the cub and “is more interested in food”, Ms Tay added.

This is the first time that WRS has successfully bred a panda cub, after six other attempts and multiple episodes of pseudo-pregnancies — that is going through the whole process of being pregnant without having a baby at the end.

Dr Abraham Mathew, the assistant vice-president of veterinary services at WRS, said that lessons learnt from earlier attempts allowed veterinarians to refine their techniques, which led to this year’s milestone.

WRS has always wanted to promote natural breeding, Dr Mathew said, but a decision was made to use artificial insemination after consultation with the experts from the China Wildlife Conservation Association so that they would not miss the narrow breeding window.

Dr Cheng said that the birth of the giant panda cub in Singapore is considered significant because there have been few births outside of China.

“We are helping to maintain a sustainable population of giant pandas in human care. In terms of conservation of these threatened species, this is important,” he added.

The World Wide Fund for Nature, which spots a giant panda as its logo, estimates that there are 1,864 of these bears in the wild and they are considered to be vulnerable. — TODAY

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