The baby and its mother, Jia Jia, are in an off-exhibit den to give them time to nurse and bond. Credit: Wildlife Reserves Singapore

The nation’s first panda cub was born on Saturday (Aug 14) at the River Safari at about 7.50am, to parents Kai Kai and Jia Jia.

In a statement on Sunday, Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), which operates the River Safari, called the birth “a joyful boost to the ongoing National Day celebrations this year”.

Video: Wildlife Reserves Singapore

It added that the panda cub’s gender is yet to be determined and will be announced later.

Mother Jia Jia and her cub, which weighs about 200g, are in an off-exhibit den to give them time to nurse and bond, WRS said.

How Jia Jia is coping with motherhood

So far, Jia Jia has shown great maternal instincts, and her mothering skills are improving day by day, in an update from lead panda caregiver Trisha Tay, animal care officer at WRS.

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Despite looking visibly tired, Jia Jia’s carers report that she is more relaxed and has been able to rest better, while continuing to be very attentive to her cub.
Credit: Wildlife Reserves Singapore

“With Jia Jia being a first-time mum, we were worried that she would be possibly aggressive, or abandon the cub. When we saw her picking up the cub so gently, it was a big sigh of relief for all of us. We’re very glad to see that Jia Jia is growing, in terms of motherhood and taking care of the cub. She would pick the cub up whenever it calls, sit up and try to nurse it. We see her taking care of it and helping it defecate, and doing a good job of being a mother,” said Trisha.

Like any new mum, Jia Jia is experiencing her fair share of motherhood struggles.

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Jia Jia enjoys a peaceful moment with her cub nestled close to her face, on Aug 19, 2021.
Credit: Wildlife Reserves Singapore

“On days when she’s really tired and the cub calls, she would give a big sigh before tending to the cub. I can feel for her and empathise with her because I’ve gone through that as well,” said Trisha.

“As best as possible, we’ll try to support her along the way, by offering her food, showing her affection and giving her words of encouragement to help her get through this tiring, crucial period of caring for a newborn cub.”

In a statement on Aug 20 (Friday), WRS said: “As is natural for panda moms that have just given birth, Jia Jia has not been eating since having the cub. Her carers have been providing her with electrolytes and glucose solution via syringe to boost her energy and ensure she remains well hydrated. Over the coming days, Jia Jia will be presented with fresh bamboo leaves several times a day, should she feel like eating again.”

When we can see Jia Jia and cub

WRS told The Straits Times on Sunday evening that the public will be able to see Jia Jia and the cub in their exhibit in approximately three months.

“We will post regular updates with videos and photos of Jia Jia and her cub on our social media platforms so everyone can keep abreast of their development,” it said.

WRS added that more updates will be announced in the coming weeks, including the cub’s name which it called “another important milestone ahead”.

How the pregnancy came about, after 7 tries

The successful birth comes after the giant pandas’ seventh breeding season. They began mating in 2015.

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Male panda Kai Kai enjoying a meal of bamboo in River Safari’s Giant Panda Forest.
Credit: Wildlife Reserves Singapore

Giant pandas are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, in part due to the narrow window for conception. Females like Jia Jia ovulate only once a year, and her fertility also peaks for just 24 to 36 hours.

WRS said 13-year-old Kai Kai and 12-year-old Jia Jia displayed signs of being in heat in April this year.

It added that its animal care team was optimistic that the pandas would naturally breed this year, as the pair had shown improvements in their mating techniques the year before.

However, the keepers did not observe clear signs of successful mounting.

Experts from the China Conservation and Research Centre for Giant Panda advised WRS vets to perform artificial insemination before the end of Jia Jia’s receptive period, to make the most of the once-a-year breeding season.

The procedure was carried out by WRS’ in-house veterinary team, using frozen semen collected from Kai Kai before the mating season.

It was through the artificial insemination that Jia Jia conceived.

Dr Cheng Wen-Haur, WRS’ deputy chief executive and chief life sciences officer, said ultrasound scans done in July showed a thickening of Jia Jia’s cervix and some fluid in the uterine horns.

“We stayed hopeful for Jia Jia, while maintaining her ultrasound checks to monitor developments,” he added, noting that female giant pandas can experience pseudopregnancy – where they show hormonal and behavioural signs of pregnancy even when they are not expecting.

Dr Cheng said the only sure way to confirm a pregnancy is through seeing a foetus that is near to term.

The gestation period ranges from three to more than five months.

On Aug 10, WRS vet Dr Heng Yirui saw a clear outline of a foetus with a strong heartbeat during an ultrasound scan.

Dr Heng recalled the emotions during the discovery of Jia Jia’s pregnancy: “In the previous years, we’ve always been hopeful about Jia Jia being pregnant. As the years went by and the more times she was found to be not pregnant, we got disheartened. As I was doing the routine ultrasound scans this year, I noticed the cervix and uterus were thickened. Just as I was about to end the session, I saw this little bag of fluid which I’d not seen before, and it looked like a beating heart. I didn’t believe what I was seeing. Everyone was shocked and ecstatic when they learnt that Jia Jia was pregnant. When we repeated the scan on Thursday (Aug 12), the amount of development the foetus had was insane. What was a mash on Tuesday turned out to be a structure with a head, visible structures in the abdominal cavity, all four limbs… a recognisable foetus, so we could be sure that she was pregnant and about to give birth.”

“Jia Jia’s first pregnancy and birth of a cub is a significant milestone for us in the care of this threatened species in Singapore,” said Dr Cheng. “The work continues now with supporting the first-time mother to raise her newborn cub.”

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Mother Jia Jia and her cub are in an off-exhibit den to give them time to nurse and bond.
Credit: Screengrab from Wildlife Reserves Singapore/Facebook

WRS said that outside of China, giant panda breeding is quite sporadic.

“Some countries are still to achieve successful breeding despite many years of attempts,” it added.

“For those that have been successful, not many have been able to repeat the success on a regular basis.”

Kai Kai and Jia Jia arrived in Singapore in September 2012, on a decade-long loan from China.

Sponsored by real estate company CapitaLand, they are one of the River Safari’s main attractions.

Under the agreement, the baby panda will return to China when it turns two, said Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Transport Baey Yam Keng in a comment on his Facebook post about the birth.

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Kai Kai and Jia Jia celebrate their birthdays on Sept 14 and Sept 3, 2018.
Credit: Wildlife Reserves Singapore

Asked about the panda family’s future, given the newborn cub, WRS said that details will be announced in due course.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he was delighted by the birth of the panda cub, and congratulated the WRS team.

He wrote on Facebook: “It is famously difficult for pandas in captivity to reproduce. Pandas have only a narrow window each year to conceive.

“This is the seventh attempt for Kai Kai and Jia Jia. Their keepers deserve kudos for this difficult and rare accomplishment, and for persevering despite previous failures.”

Here’s the timeline of events.

2012

Kai Kai and Jia Jia arrive in Singapore from Chengdu on Sept 6, on a 10-year loan from China.

2015

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A 2015 photo shows Kai Kai (on top) frolicking with Jia Jia.
Credit: Wildlife Reserves Singapore

In April, seven-year-old male Kai Kai starts bleating and scent-marking to attract Jia Jia, then six years old. They are brought together to mate and Jia Jia also undergoes artificial insemination. But the first attempt fails.

2016

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Female panda Jia Jia undergoing an ultrasound scan in 2015.
Credit: Wildlife Reserves Singapore

Artificial insemination is carried out on Jia Jia for the second time after natural mating fails, but to no avail. Giant pandas are notoriously difficult to breed as females have only one reproductive cycle per year, and are fertile for just 24 to 36 hours. Breeding pandas in captivity is a challenge, as a receptive female panda in the wild would have its pick of the most virile bear – an experience male in its prime. As Kai Kai and Jia Jia were both young and inexperienced, natural mating was more difficult.

2017

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A photo from March 30, 2017, shows Kai Kai and Jia Jia engaging in a courtship dance in their den at the River Safari.
Credit: Wildlife Reserves Singapore

For their third attempt, Jia Jia and Kai Kai are put together for natural mating on March 30 before Jia Jia is inseminated. Her hormone levels are also monitored – a gradual increase in progesterone levels indicates a possible pregnancy or pseudo pregnancy.

2018

For the first time, experts go straight for the artificial insemination process, instead of letting the pandas mate naturally first. The attempt takes over three hours, but is not successful. 

April 2021

The pandas enter their seventh breeding season. They mate naturally and artificial insemination is carried out too.

July

Ultrasound scans show a thickening of Jia Jia’s cervix and some fluid in the uterine horns.

Aug 10

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An ultrasound visual of the baby panda.
Credit: Wildlife Reserves Singapore/Facebook

A Wildlife Reserves Singapore veterinarian sees a clear outline of a foetus with a strong heartbeat during an ultrasound scan.

Aug 14

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River Safari’s first panda cub being cradled by Jia Jia. The baby was born at 7.50am on Aug 14, 2021.
Credit: Wildlife Reserves Singapore

Singapore’s first panda cub is born at the River Safari at about 7.50am.

A version of this article was first published on The Straits Times, and has been updated subsequently. Additional reporting by Estelle Low.