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09302012-1 Picture a giant panda. Now, imagine holding a stick of butter in your hand. That is the size of a newborn giant panda. On September 16, 2012, the National Zoo in Washington D.C. joyfully announced the birth of a giant panda cub. News of the pink and furless cub was met with much rejoicing. Zoo officials celebrated after years of failed attempts to make Mei Xiang and her mate, Tian Tian, parents. Conservationists celebrated a successful breeding as a step forward in the fight to protect the endangered species. And giant panda fans celebrated because, well, what is not to like about the cute, peaceful, rarest of bears?

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Merely six days later, the National Zoo sadly announced the sudden death of the giant panda cub. Final test results are not expected for another week; however, the death highlights the challenges of captive breeding programs and of protecting endangered animals. It also reminds us of the precarious existence of one of our most adored species.

This week, travel online to a tiny slice of China’s mountains, and to the Animal Planet and National Zoo sites to learn more about the giant panda and efforts to save them.

Introducing the Giant Panda

09302012-5 The giant panda is a shy and a rare bear. In the wild, it lives in the mountains of China. View how the giant pandas natural habitat has changed over the years. The combination of elusive, rare, and remote means the giant panda is difficult for naturalists to study in the wild. Most of us will never see a giant panda in the wild. Instead, we rely on conservationist programs at zoos for a chance to see the giant panda. You can also Journey online through the interactive bamboo forest and learn more about the giant panda’s geography, anatomy, diet, courtship, birth, life expectancy, and language of the giant panda. Read a rundown of giant panda facts.

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Conservation and zoo programs play a major role in protecting and studying the giant panda. Chinese and American programs often work in cooperation. The pair of giant pandas who live at the National Zoo in Washington, DC are on loan from the Chinese Wildlife Conservation Association until 2015. Learn more about Mei Xiang and Tian Tian—the National Zoo’s giant pandas. Watch a series of short videos. Learn about when and why the two were paired by watching Wolong Introduction and An Interesting Couple. See Mei Xiang and Tian Tian travel to their new home at the Washington Zoo in Pandas in Flight, Preparing for Pandas, and New Digs. Finally, meet and greet Mei Xiang and Tian Tian along with hordes of fans by viewing Panda Personality and An Introduction. Read more about the two pandas and study their family trees.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are popular guests at the National Zoo. But, their primary role is as part of an extensive conservation program. The goal: a cub who survives. Their reproduction is not left to nature and chance; the National Zoo’s Hormone Lab monitors Mei Xiang closely. Their video explains the how and why of their work.In anticipation of the Mei Xiang and Tian Tian’s arrival, the staff at the National Zoo created a habitat especially for them. To do this, they considered a list of questions. The answers helped them create the most appropriate space for their panda guests. Visit the giant panda exhibit at the National Zoo to see the features they included.

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The cub born this month was not the first born to Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. National Zoo veterinarian Suzan Murray discusses the birth of Tai Shan in 2005. (He now lives in China.) The interview is divided into eight short segments. Watch them all. You may have noticed--a newborn giant panda may not look like you would expect. Visit the Wolong Giant Panda Breeding Center to see just-born cubs and to view a photo tour of how the cubs are cared for.

It is a conundrum for scientists: how do you study wild pandas when they are so hard to find in the wild? Instead, pandas are largely studied in captivity. But, does their behavior in captivity mirror their behavior in the wild? To help bridge the gap between captive and wild, pandas in captivity are provided with panda ‘enrichment.’ Naturalists learn about panda behavior by studying how they play. The hope is that the enrichment helps captive giant pandas mimic their natural behavior and provides an accurate picture to scientists of the giant panda’s behavior.If you just cannot get enough of giant panda photos, visit the National Zoo’s photo gallery of panda photos. The National Zoo site also features a panda cam for viewing the animals in their exhibit and a blog with news updates. If you are crazy for pandas, perhaps being a panda keeper is for you. Brenda Morgan is the panda keeper at the National Zoo. Read more about Brenda’s story as weight watcher and trainer.

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The irony, of course, is that despite our fondness for the giant panda, and the desire to protect it, it is human interactions with the giant pandas’ habitat that endanger its existence. If it is possible to be a lucky endangered species, then the panda is; there are people fighting to protect its habitat and captive breeding programs designed to ensure it does not become extinct. However, what of the other endangered species? The ones that are not so cute or so known? Who decides which species are expendable and which are worthwhile? The Voice of America considers those questions in their series on extinction; read The expendables. View the slideshow of 29 of the most endangered species then read the complete list. What are the most common threats to these species? What actions and by whom are recommended to help protect these species?