Follow the growth of two baby pandas from birth to eight months!
ZooParc de Beauval in central France celebrated the birth of giant panda twins, which arrived in the early hours of Monday 2 August 2021. The babies—blind, very small and almost without fur—are both female, weighing at birth 149g and 129g. They were cared for around the clock by their mother and carers from China, who came especially to welcome the newborns.
For the latest images from March 2022 and details of the naming ceremony, please scroll down to the end of the blog. You can view our Panda Twins gallery here.
Insemination and ultrasound
Panda reproduction is notoriously difficult as female pandas are only in season for 24 to 48 hours per year. During the window of conception in March, parents Huan Huan and Yuan Zi were seen making ‘contact’ eight times – but an artificial insemination was also carried out, as a precaution. This was undertaken by German scientists Thomas Hilderbrandt and Franz Goeritz from the IZW institute in Berlin. Because of the Covid crisis, Chinese scientists couldn’t come to France.
On 23rd July, a scan revealed that Huan Huan was pregnant with twins. There was an explosion of joy at Beauval. Huan Huan herself was born a twin, which makes it more likely that she will conceive a pair of genetically identical offspring. In 2017, she delivered her first set of twins at Beauval, but only one of them survived. The little male, Yuan Meng, was the first giant panda ever born in France.
Preparing for the birth
Hormonal analysis by a laboratory in Gant, Belgium, correctly calculated when Huan Huan would give birth. All the keepers were ready, while Lyu Riuqing and Mao Min—two experienced female carers from the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China—were on hand to support the Beauval team.
Huan Huan goes into labour
Huan Huan went into labour on Sunday at around 5pm. Periods of licking herself and clicking her teeth were followed by bouts of resting and even eating a little. Seven hours after the first signs of labour, Huan Huan’s waters broke: a moment that photographer Eric Baccega was able to capture on camera. She began to lick herself intensely, click her teeth more loudly and, above all, to vocalise, which she had not been doing before.
Healthy twins are born
The first of the twins finally arrived at 1:03am on Monday morning, and the second at 1:10am. They were both strong, active, and crying loudly. In the wild, a female panda can only care for one baby. But the role of the zoo is to take care of both. The caregivers are now looking after Huan Huan, while alternately feeding her infants. The babies are rotated at regular intervals, so that they get the best of care. While one is suckling from its mother, its twin is bottle-fed in an incubator. The newborns are given colostrum, the first form of milk a mother panda produces, which is rich in nutrients and antibodies. Both babies are under close 24-hour supervision and will not be seen by the public for a few weeks.
The political and media power of baby pandas
Baptiste Mulot, the head veterinarian of the zoo, has delivered all sorts of babies, from giraffes and elephants to manatees. But he says that no other species has such political or media clout as the giant panda. Beauval’s pandas are ‘on loan’ from China. The animals—considered to be a national treasure—are typically loaned in pairs over a 10-year period, and have been long been part of China’s diplomatic strategies. Cubs born in foreign zoos are returned to China before they turn four. Yuan Meng, the first of Huan Huan’s offspring (pictured below) has now reached that age. He should have returned to China last year but stayed in France due to the COVID-19 crisis. Read the full story of the birth of Yuan Meng, France’s first baby panda in 2017. His Chinese name aptly means Dream Come True!
Giant pandas now vulnerable not endangered
Last month, China’s environmental ministry said that giant pandas are no longer classified as endangered, as their number in the wild has reached 1,800. However, they are still considered vulnerable, partly due to their brief window of fertility.
A symbol for conservation of the species
Delphine Delord, Associate General Manager for Beauval Zoo, expressed her hopes that the two baby females will one day go on to give birth themselves, and become a symbol for the conservation of their species.
We have created a new Panda Twins gallery where you can explore more images of the panda twins and their mother.
UPDATE: 3rd August 2021
Eric describes the incredible relationship between the carers and the mother panda
“ It is incredible to witness the relationship between the female panda and the carers. The two carers talk a lot with Huan Huan. They also utter little cries, imitating those of a panda. But the most incredible thing is to see how docile the female is with the carers. Not a hint of aggression when the carers put their arms through the bars of the enclosure. They do this to help the babies to find the mother’s teats or to retrieve one of the babies when it has suckled enough. Each has about 9 or 10 feeds in each 24 hours and they add between 1 and 7 grammes per feed.”
At 6pm yesterday female 1 (first one recovered by carer after birth) weighed 137.4g and female 2 weighed 121.1g. Both have lost a bit of weight since birth, but that is normal.
UPDATE: 4th August 2021
The weight of the babies at 6pm on 4th August was 133g (female 1) and 122.9g (female 2). Everything is fine.
For the first time, the Chinese carers have decided to teach the process of caring for panda babies from birth to a French carer. For Cassandra Milliet (pictured at left with Mrs Mao Min) it’s a childhood dream come true. She never even imagined that she would one day experience this. Cassandra arrived at the zoo as a trainee in January 2021, with a master’s degree in ethology. She became full-time in June.
One of the babies takes a tumble!
The sequence of images below shows Mrs Mao Min helping Huan Huan to suckle one of the twins. Although the baby takes a tumble, it is unharmed and Huan Huan quickly picks it up again.
The caregivers continue to look after the twins in an incubator. Meanwhile, Huan Huan is also attended to and given high-protein food mixed with Chinese herbs and tea.
When each baby is away from its mother, it is kept warm and regularly cleaned. The cubs are still so helpless that they can’t regulate their body temperatures or even excrete waste on their own. he carers keep them warm in the incubator and rub their bellies to stimulate the muscles to release urine and faeces.
UPDATE: 5th August 2021
The babies now weigh 141.7g (female 1) and 132.6g (female 2).
UPDATE: 6th August 2021
The babies now weigh 148.7g (female 1) and 138.3g (female 2).
[LEFT] Delphine Pouvreau, head of the panda section at Beauval says: “When I learned that Huan Huan was pregnant, I was very pleased but also concerned, because I didn’t want to relive the experience of the last time, when the first of her twins died. Today I am delighted and relieved to have 2 little female pandas to look after. The birth was a longer process this time than last, but everything moved very quickly from the moment of the waters breaking. In a few minutes, two beautiful babies were born. And I am delighted to see that Huan Huan is taking wonderful care of her babies. She is managing to feed both of them. On the first day, the Chinese carers took milk from the female to give to the smaller baby, as she wasn’t feeding properly, but since then all has gone well. I have noticed that Huan Huan has become an experienced mother, in contrast to the last time, when it was her first birth. We felt that Huan Huan was less stressed than the first time as if she understood what was happening to her. This birth has gone as gone as well as we could have hoped.”
[RIGHT] Mao Min, the Chinese carer, has looked after Huan Huan (and also Yuan Zi, from the age of 6 months to 3 years old). Although she cannot be totally sure, Mao Min believes that Huan Huan recognised her, or at least the sound of her voice, when she returned to assist with this latest birth. Many of the female pandas who give birth in China – and Mao Min has seen a lot – are not as co-operative as Huan Huan. She is an excellent mother who finds the necessary resources to feed her babies. And Mao Min is very proud of that!
UPDATE: 7th August 2021
Huan Huan’s close relationship with keeper Mao Min
Huan Huan has developed a close relationship with Mao Min, one of the keepers sent from Chengdu to assist with the birth and aftercare of her babies.
Keeper Mao Min has been working at the Chengdu Breeding Centre for 13 years, having started as an intern in 2008. From December 2008 she looked after Huan Huan and her twin brother Ying Ying, when the baby pandas were between 4 and 5 months old. She remembers that Huan Huan was a very gentle and calm young female and did not like to fight with her twin brother. Mao Min also came to France in 2013 to look after the panda couple for 6 months.
Mao Min says that it has been her greatest happiness as a keeper to have helped Huan Huan with the birth of two beautiful female babies.
UPDATE: 8th August 2021
UPDATE: 9th August 2021
The babies now weigh 197.00g (female 1) and 182,40 (female 2) as of 9.00 and 9.20 this morning.
Here we see Huan Huan picking up one of her babies gently with her mouth. Then Mao Min helps her to suckle baby 2.
UPDATE: 11th August 2021
The babies now weigh 249.00g (female 1) and 240.50 (female 2) as of 9.00 this morning.
At 10 days old, the babies are beginning to show characteristic panda markings. Their arms and legs are turning black and they are also developing the signature black ears and eyepatches. For now, their noses are still pink and their fur remains sparse. Within about three weeks, their fur will all be filled in. They will start to open their eyes between six to eight weeks old. And by two months, their ear canals will open.
LATEST UPDATE: 9th September 2021
The twins are growing fast and can take up to 100g of milk in one feed. Today’s weights are 1.63kg (female 1) and 1.66kg (female 2)
Huan Huan still suckling the babies with no problems – twice a day at 6 hour intervals.
The twin’s characters are quite similar – but baby 2 loves to be cuddled by her mother or the keepers/carers. She also likes to be stroked.
The twins are quite easy to tell apart – baby 2 has a little black mark on the end of her muzzle.
LATEST UPDATE: November 2021
The naming ceremony
The naming ceremony for the two baby pandas took place on 18th November. NPL’s Eric Baccega had privileged behind the scenes access to the mother Huan Huan and the two twin female cubs, now named Huanlili (the first born) and Yuandudu (the second born). The names were inspired by the names of the twins’ father Yuan Zi and mother Huan Huan and the names express a wish for the healthy development of the babies and symbolise the close links between China and France. The godparents were the French World Cup winning footballer Kylian Mbappé and the Chinese Olympic gold medal winning diver Zhang Jiaqi.
The naming ceremony marks the end of the early weeks for the babies, which are fragile and totally dependent on their mother and the zoo staff. Both twins are in great shape, weighing almost 6kg and measuring more than 50cm. The vet and keeper teams are still very vigilant but reassured by the liveliness of the babies. They are also very happy with the way Huan Huan takes care of the two babies in turn. They are fed once each by their mother each day, taking 150-200g of milk per feed. In between they have one bottle feed per day from the specially trained keepers . In between feeds Huanlili and Yuandudu spend time being cuddled by their mother, playing, resting together and biting each other.
LATEST UPDATE: March 2022
First Steps Outside
At almost 8 months old, weighing around 18kg (Huanlili) and 20.5kg (Yuandudu) the panda twins are ready to explore. At 9:45am on the 11th March the twins took their first exciting steps outside. Eric describes the wonderful moment when the twins began exploring their new playground:
“Right from the beginning, you could sense the joy that Yuandudu and Huanlili felt in their new outdoor environment. The enclosure contains wooden ladders, platforms, rocks, caves, trees and bushes. The twins wandered around a little bit shyly at first, sniffing the ground tentatively. But before long they were enthusiastically climbing everything in sight. At first, they were quite clumsy and awkward, but soon they were pulling themselves up and around the structures.”
Eric and the caretakers were surprised to find that Yuandudu, who is usually shyer than Huanlili when indoors, took the lead outside. Eric describes watching Huanlili descend a ladder as if she was thinking “Do I go or don’t I go.” Finally, despite encouragement from the caretakers she had to be carried back down. Now that the pandas are used to being outside, it is Huanlili who is more confident. She loves climbing trees and sunbathing, whilst Yuandudu prefers to nap inside.
Milan Thorel, a veterinarian at Beauval zoo, said the first outdoor excursion was a success: “It is the result of a many months’ hard work carried out jointly by the caretakers from Chendgu, and the zoo’s own panda carers and veterinarians. We are happy to see the twins in their outdoor environment, especially with their mother Huan Huan.”
To view the full Panda Twins gallery, showing their story from birth to April 2022, click here.