It’s not the easiest question to answer, but we’ll give it a go.
There’s really two questions here; how many giant pandas were born in captivity and how many were born in the wild?
How many cubs born in the wild?
We’ll start with wild pandas, because it’s harder to figure out and there’s less detail to go through. Best estimates put the wild population of giant pandas at around 1800-1900 bears.
Low fertility rates have been a problem with the wild population for… well, a really long time. It’s one of the main reasons panda numbers have dwindled so low. When pandas do rarely get pregnant, they only tend to give birth to twins and in the harsh realities of their wild life, only one of those cubs make it to adulthood on average.
Panda numbers in the wild have been growing slowly year on year for a while, in large part thanks to the efforts in China to restore their natural bamboo forrest habitat.
In nature, pandas can expect to have a lifespan of 15-20 years. Combined with other causes, we estimate that 10-12% of the wild panda population might be dying each year. That’s around 180-220 pandas based on current population levels.
Given that the population has been steadily growing over the last five years, it suggests that births have been above this level for a while. So, our best guess is that 250-300 panda cubs might have been born in the wild in 2022.
How many cubs born in captivity?
This is the easier question to answer, though it’s still far from straightforward.
Here we can break the question down into two parts again; how many panda cubs were born in zoos around the world and how many were born in the large research centers and breeding programmes found in China?
Somewhat surprisingly, in 2022, there were no reported births of pandas in zoos outside China. There are only around 50 pandas in zoos outside of mainland China and after quite a few births between 2018 and 2021, last year was a quiet one.
It might seem odd at first, but pandas are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, so with a handful of cub successes in the last few years, it’s not surprising to go a year with no news when looking at a relatively small number of the bears.
Some giant pandas on loan to countries outside China also aren’t housed at zoos with breeding programmes or are generally no longer at peak breeding age where the chance of them having cubs is higher.
What about breeding within China?
The Chinese government has really invested in breeding pandas over the last decade, with several large research facilities dedicated to better understand the bears and their needs.
These efforts continued to pay dividends in 2022, with at least 23 cubs bred successful across three different centers during the year.
Given there are only estimated to be around 500 giant pandas in captivity globally, that’s an incredible increase in the population (especially as captive giant pandas live much longer than their wild counterparts).
The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding led the charge, welcoming 15 panda cubs into the world in 2022. The base is the world’s leading research facility focused on the giant panda and is now home to over 200 of the bears (that’s 40% of the global non-wild population).
Thanks in large part to their efforts, the number of captive pandas has increased by more than 10% each year on average for the last decade.
More pandas in captivity may not directly mean more pandas in the wild, as it’s not possible to release bears raised in zoos or research centers. But more bears does mean more research and a greater undertsanding of how to support the all important wild population. So the work to breed pandas in captivity is vital.
Alongside Chengdu there were also six cubs born at the Qinling Giant Panda Research Center, a smaller center that has benefited from the pioneering research in Chengdu. In Qinling, all six cubs were the result of artificial insemination, with two sets of twins and two individual cubs making up the total.
The final two bears were born at the Chongqing Zoo in south west China, back in July 2022. This was the second set of twins for the mother, Ershun, who spent over ten years living in Canada on exchange programmes with Toronto and Calgary Zoos. Chongqing is now home to 21 pandas, a testament to their successful breeding programme which has been in place for over 60 years.
The grand total?
Given that wild births will always be an educated guess, our most optimistic estimate is that upwards of 323 giant panda cubs might have been born in 2022.
With a global population still well under 3000 (around 1800-1900 in the wild and a further 500-600 in captivity), that represents a real win for the ongoing flourishing of our most precious panda bears.
Panda numbers have slowly been rising now for over a decade and 2022 continued that good news story. Not only are all the numbers moving in the right direction, but we’re learning more than ever before about how to best care for pandas, both in captivity and in the wild.
Not only that, the panda remains an important and powerful symbol for wildlife conservation more broadly. Showing that with real conserted efforts, people from across the world can work together to address the plight of some of our rarest and most threatened ecosystems.