Giant panda twins born as species is taken off the endangered list

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ATLANTA — Atlanta’s zoo says a 19-year-old giant panda has given birth to a set of twins.

Zoo Atlanta said in a news release Saturday that giant panda named Lun Lun delivered the twin cubs at 7:20 a.m. and 8:07 a.m. Saturday morning. It’s Lun Lun’s second pair of twins.

Officials say Lun Lun was artificially inseminated in March. The round-the-clock birth watch started late last month. Lun Lun and 18-year-old male panda Yang Yang have seven offspring together, all resulting from artificial insemination.

The pair’s first three cubs live at China’s Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Twins Mei Lun and Mei Huan were born in 2013 and live at Zoo Atlanta.

Their births come as the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species determined that giant pandas are  no longer an endangered species.

Thanks to an increase in available habitat, the population of the giant panda rose 17% from 2004 to 2014, leading the IUCN to downgrade it from endangered to vulnerable.

A nationwide census in 2014 found 1,864 giant pandas in the wild in China, up from 1,596 in 2004, the IUCN said in its report on the animal.

Revered in Chinese culture, the giant panda was once widespread throughout southern China.

Since the 1970s, it has been the focus of one of the most intensive, high-profile campaigns to recover an endangered species, after a census by the Chinese government found around 2,459 pandas in the world — proof of its precarious position, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

China banned trading panda skins in 1981, and the enactment of the 1988 Wildlife Protection Law banned poaching and conferred the highest protected status to the animal. The creation of a panda reserve system in 1992 increased available habitats; today, there are 67 reserves in the country that protect 67% of the population and nearly 1.4 million hectares of habitat.

Meanwhile, partnerships between the Chinese government and international conservation nongovernmental organizations and zoos have spread research, conservation and breeding efforts. Zoo Atlanta announced Saturday that 19-year-old Lun Lun, originally from China’s Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, had given birth to twins.

The improved status confirms that the Chinese government’s reforestation and forest protection efforts are working, the IUCN said. But climate change still threatens to eliminate more than 35% of the panda’s bamboo habitat in the next 80 years; hence the “vulnerable” designation, which means it’s still at risk of extinction.

“The recovery of the panda shows that when science, political will and engagement of local communities come together, we can save wildlife and also improve biodiversity,” said WWF Director General Marco Lambertini.