The giant panda is an endangered species native to areas of south central China. It’s believed that there are between 1,500 to 3,000 pandas in the wild, and while the population is increasing, the panda population is still reliant on humans protecting its habitat from further depletion. And to further aid the development of the panda population, there’s the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
As the name suggests, the research base is a breeding facility for giant pandas. It got its start in 1987, when officials rescued six panda bears from the wild; today, the research base’s panda population is in the dozens — Wikipedia has it at 83 pandas as of 2013. Given the purpose of the facility, it shouldn’t be surprising that expectant panda mothers are given the royal treatment. As Chinese news site Xinhuanet reported, “after showing prenatal signs, the ‘mothers-to-be’ are moved into single rooms with air conditioning and around-the-clock care. They also receive more buns, fruits and bamboo.” It’s a good life if you’re a panda. Just ask Ai Hin, pictured below.
In 2014, Ai Hin, then age 6, started exhibiting the tell-tale signs of panda pregnancy, per TheJournal.ie — “reduced appetite, less mobility and a surge in hormones.” So Chengdu facility decided to move Ai Hin into the maternity suite. And, given how newsworthy a panda birth is, they had an even bigger idea: a live broadcast of the birth.
There was only one problem.
Ai Hin was (probably) faking it.
As Xinhuanet further explained, there’s a phenomenon among endangered species (and pandas in particular) known as “phantom pregnancy” — basically, the animal ends up with all of the symptoms of the pregnancy except the actual pregnancy part. While the onset of those symptoms are outside the control of the bear, the behavioral changes may not be: “experts said sometimes the pandas, noticing the difference in treatment after exhibiting initial signs of pregnancy, may carry on with the pregnant behavior.” Ai Hin’s 2014 pregnancy was, likely, one of those instances.
We’re not sure though. To complicate matters even more, per the Washington Post, “a giant panda fetus is actually quite small, so it’s difficult to find it with an ultrasound scan.” And it’s quite possible that the phantom pregnancy was a real one that ended in a miscarriage. Either way, though, as her due date approached, Ai Hin wasn’t carrying a child. the breeding center cancelled the live broadcast.
Ultimately, though, the show went on. In May of 2016, Ai Hin gave birth to a male panda cub — for real — while more than 100,000 people watched online.
From the Archives: Panda Diplomacy: What happens when a panda is born in the United States? Ask China.
Take the Quiz: Name the 14 countries that border China.
Related: A coin-stealing panda piggy bank.