How Often Do Baby Giant Pandas Die? Twin Cubs' Survival Rate Is Low For A Sad Reason

On Wednesday afternoon, one of the National Zoo's twin giant panda cubs passed away. The cubs were born to 17-year-old giant panda Mei Xiang at the D.C. zoo on Saturday. Sadly, the giant panda cub's death is part of a trend. Giant panda twin cub deaths are common, though recent measures have drastically improved their survival rate, especially in captivity.

Twin giant panda cubs have lower survival rates in the wild than they do in captivity, because the mothers often focus on only one cub and allow the other to die. In captivity, however, about nine out of every 10 twin giant panda cubs born alive do survive, a similar survival rate to single-birth giant panda cubs, according to The Washington Post. According to the Post's research, out of 36 instances of giant panda cub births at zoos in China and the U.S. in 2015 (14 of which were twin births), the National Zoo's loss Wednesday marked the only recorded death.

The National Zoo's animals are kept in captivity, so what went wrong? Well, it depends on who you ask. At a press conference streamed via Periscope on Wednesday afternoon, the National Zoo explained that its zookeepers had spent the past few days switching the cubs out every four hours so that Mei Xiang could care for one cub at a time. That way, she could focus her attention on one cub, as giant panda mothers would do with twins in the wild — but she'd actually be spending equal time with each cub, rather than favoring one of them. When each cub wasn't with Mei Xiang, it was kept in an incubator and bottle-fed.

The National Zoo apparently started having trouble switching the cubs out on Monday, USA Today reports. According to USA Today, Mei Xiang was "not being cooperative" with the switching process. Zookeepers had become concerned about the smaller cub's health, because it was regurgitating its food and weighed less than the other cub. Mei Xiang did agree to care for the smaller cub on Tuesday night, The Washington Post explains, but the cub still experienced respiratory issues before it suffered from cardiac arrest on Wednesday.

According to The Washington Post, National Zoo officials have called the cub's death "devastating." Brandie Smith, the zoo's associate director for animal care sciences, told The New York Times: "The incredible joy that you feel, where you have these two beautiful, fragile, delicate cubs, and you have the awesome responsibility of helping a panda mother care for these cubs — it's an honor."

The smaller cub might have been born with "problems," but the zoo doesn't know for sure, Smith told the Chicago Sun-Times. Still, officials told CNN Wednesday that for the first few days after their birth, both cubs showed "no signs of concerns." Either way, there isn't proof that swapping the cubs out was directly related to the cub's death.

Whether or not the zoo's plan to switch the cubs out was a good one, PETA believes that splitting the cubs up was a "public relations fiasco." PETA is no stranger to controversy, but its stance about the National Zoo's policy was harsh. In a statement released Tuesday, before the cub's death, PETA President Ingrid Newkirk said that giant panda cubs in captivity should be kept with their mothers.

"Studies show that captive giant panda cubs subjected to early removal from their mothers experience problems with behavioral development from a lack of mother-infant social stimulation," Newkirk said in the statement. "Removing babies as if they're nothing more than future exhibits to be preserved and treating the mother panda as simply a baby-making machine while disrespecting and disregarding her maternal instincts as well as fighting with her to remove her infants in the name of 'animal science' is unethical, unthinkable, and wrong."

While the studies Newkirk cited may show that bonding with the mother is best for giant panda cubs, her statement ignored the fact that giant pandas in the wild often abandon one of their cubs if they have twins. The zoo's swapping process attempted to allow both cubs to experience the "mother-infant social stimulation" After the cub's death, PETA issued a series of tweets that seemed to condemn the fact that the cubs were "handled by humans."

Despite the National Zoo's loss, being born in captivity is still twin giant panda cubs' best chance at survival, because giant panda females in the wild often nurture one cub and leave the other to die. The National Zoo's loss, though, shows that there's still controversy over how twin giant panda cubs should be treated in captivity.