Zookeeper, father, grandfather, butler:
A man of many panda-related hats
On the night of July 20th a giant panda was born in Everland, the first panda born in Korea. It is also significant that the panda cub was born through natural breeding. Designated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources as “Vulnerable,” only 1,800 giant pandas are living in the wild.
From the arrival of the parents Ai-Bao and Le-Bao at Everland in 2016 to the recent birth of their cub, zookeeper Kang Chul-won has been at the center of Everland’s pandakeeping.
Kang’s relationship with pandas started as a new member of the panda team when Everland Zoo first introduced them in 1994. He took care of them for four years, and then took up pandakeeping again when Ai-Bao and Le-Bao arrived at the park in 2016. Kang says, “I recently went on a business trip to Sichuan Dujiangyan Panda Habitat in China, and LiLi, whom I took care of back then, recognized me even though it had been over 20 years. Panda experts saw that and gave me the nickname ‘Xiongmao Baba,’ which means panda father. Now, thanks to Ai-Bao and Le-Bao, I have become ‘Xiongmao Yeye,’ which means panda grandfather.”
A difficult birth
It is very difficult for pandas to get pregnant as they are solitary animals and can only conceive one to three days a year. Kang says, “Becoming pregnant and giving birth for pandas is very different from many other animals. The birth of this cub did not just happen overnight, but we have gone through stages over the last year, which were also part of a bigger plan being executed for the last four years.”
He says that one of the most important factors for a panda pregnancy is temperature and light, so the team paid careful attention to both so that the panda parents could know they are in a clear climate zone. Small projects were also undertaken to increase the chemistry between them. For instance, the team regularly exchanged the pandas’ rooms so that they could become accustomed to each other’s scents become more attracted to each other. They also took care of the pandas’ health by muscle training, weight management and nutrition management to prepare them to become parents. Meanwhile, vets analyzed the pandas’ hormones to determine an accurate childbearing period and thoroughly monitored any changes in their body and behaviors. With this monitoring the vets determined the date for the best chance at a baby, and the plan succeeded at the end of March.
After that, a dedicated team took care of the expectant mother, Ai-Bao, as she started becoming increasingly sensitive. The team monitored the changes she went through while preparing for the upcoming birth of the cub by getting her comfortable with her labor room, which was the best environment for giving birth.
But it is also difficult to confirm a giant panda pregnancy until birth is imminent. This is because they exhibit a phenomenon called delayed implantation, in which the embryo floats in the womb. Kang said, “With the help of Everland’s zookeepers and vets, we were waiting for her delivery date with everything in readiness, as we made an accurate prediction by analyzing the parents’ hormones and behaviors and health data from previous years.”
He continued, “I learned through my training in China about panda birth, and a Chinese expert also joined in advance to simulate her delivery and divide up the necessary roles. Despite all these preparations, I got more and more nervous as the day drew nearer. When Ai-Bao’s water broke and she went into labor, my mind was racing but I was at a loss of what to do. Finally, when the cub was born with a strong cry that filled the labor room, the moment was just a thrill and joy itself. All the staff embraced each other and enjoyed the happiness of the moment to the fullest.”
Now, the baby cub is rapidly growing with the love and care of her mother Ai-Bao and Kang as well. Kang said, “Pandas are pregnant for too short a time, so their cubs are born with their eyes and ears still closed and only 1/900th the weight of their mothers, making it more difficult for them to survive in the earliest days of their lives. So we are on our toes now.” Everland prepared a special residence for the health of the cub and closed it to the public for the time being.
Kang styles himself as a butler for pandas as he is in charge of everything regarding their life and health. He says, “As a zookeeper, you should be sensitive enough to be able to notice any physical changes and conditions of your animals quickly.” Every morning he spends time communing with the pandas and conducting “medical training” to check their health, which is one of the things that Kang emphasizes the most for pandas. Kang explains, “It is a method for animal health care that does not stress them out. It places emphasis on caring for them through interactions with zookeepers when doing things like taking blood samples, measuring their weight, examining their teeth, and taking ultrasounds.”
Panda World, home to Everland’s pandas, also offers an environment that is the closest to a wild panda habitat as it can be. Also, considering their playful nature, there are also balls, slides, floating rest areas, swimming pools and sometimes cold chunks of ice for the pandas to enjoy.
Kang said, “I want to be a zookeeper for the animals rather than one that is famous to people. I will take another step forward today to become a zookeeper who can commune and share thoughts with animals.”