China set a giant panda free to mate and now has the first cub born to captive and wild parents

Cao Cao wearing her necklace.
Cao Cao wearing her necklace.
Image: Weibo/CCRCGP
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Cao Cao took a walk on the wild side, and she came home pregnant.

In March the giant panda was set free from a semi-wild training base in China’s southwestern Sichuan province, in hopes that she would mate with a wild male. It worked. This week she gave birth to a male cub. It’s the first time a baby giant panda has sprung from such a pairing, say officials (link in Chinese) at the province’s China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda. That goes for not just China, but, as far as they know, the world.

Cao Cao, now 15 years old, was rescued in 2003. Her wild boyfriend is from an area in the Qionglai Mountains not far from her home. A recording device around Cao Cao’s neck captured the couple’s fling, which lasted for about 90 seconds on March 23. Researchers brought Cao Cao back home in April. Pandas are notoriously clumsy at sex, so success was far from assured.

Not that Cao Cao hasn’t conceived before. It’s just been done with the help of captive males. She’s now the mother of seven pandas, including two pairs of twins. One of her sons, Tao Tao, was released into the wild in 2012 and as of last summer was alive and well, judging by fecal matter found by researchers (link in Chinese).

But researchers are concerned about a lack of genetic variation among captive giant pandas, of which there are about 470 in the world. Hence the decision by the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda to start a program late last year in which females are temporarily let loose in the wild, as CCTV reports (video in Chinese).

The International Union for Conservation of Nature listed the giant panda as endangered until last September, when it upgraded the status to merely “vulnerable.” It estimates that in December 2015 the world had 2,060 giant pandas.

The newborn cub weighs around 216 grams (0.47 pounds), which is heavier than typical cubs born to captive parents. That, too, is good news.