While many recent advances have been made in the breeding of giant pandas ex situ, historically this species has never reproduced well in captivity. Sexual incompatibility, health problems, low fecundity and a juvenile mortality rate in excess of 70% have contributed to low reproductive success (O'Brien & Knight, 1987; O'Brien et al., 1994; Peng et al., 2001a, b). Wild- and captive-born giant pandas, particularly those captured at a young age, traditionally had difficulty producing offspring in captivity upon becoming adults (Lu & Kemf, 2001). As a result, the ex-situ giant panda population has not been self-sustaining and, until recently, its growth has relied on introducing animals captured from nature. In some cases, this included individuals that appeared ill (rescues) or cubs that were believed to be neglected or abandoned by their mothers. Later field studies, however, revealed that females often leave cubs alone for four to eight hours while foraging, and in one documented case for 52 hours (Lu et al., 1994). Recently, China has placed a general moratorium on capturing wild giant pandas for captive breeding (Lu & Kemf, 2001), a move that forces the breeding community to develop a self-sustaining population.
The goal, however, is not only ensuring demographic self-sustainability but also the maintenance of genetic diversity. The deleterious effects of inbreeding are well recognised (O'Brien, 1994a; Frankham, 1995; Hedrick & Kalinowski, 2001; Frankham et al., 2002).