China Giant pandas mate but once a year, producing at the most two cubs, only one of which usually survives the reproductive habits that try the patience of zoologists working to save the endangered species. Frustrated with the failure of other artificial breeding methods, Chinese scientists are now considering the possibility of cloning the animal that has become a symbol for endangered species everywhere.

"If we really can succeed in cloning them, then it will really work much better than the current methods in increasing their numbers." says Chen Dayuan, a zoologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Chen did not indicate that cloning research had begun, just that it might be a promising way to save the giant panda from extinction. Giant pandas are native only to China, and only about 1,000 survive in the wild. The shrinking of their habitat and poaching have devastated the species, spurring efforts to develop artificial breeding techniques.

The proposal to clone pandas reflects the frustrations of zoologists who, after decades of research, remain puzzled by various aspects of panda's reproductive physiology. For example, 13-year-old female panda Xing Xing gave birth to three cubs, including a pair of twins that both survived. But she has not borne any cubs in the past seven years. "The pandas, particularly the females, don't go into heat often enough because of endocrine disturbances,' Chen said.

Not all Chinese scientists support research into test-tube pandas. Pan Wenshi, a Beijing University professor who has spent more than 20 years studying the animals argues that so little is known about their reproductive physiology that such research could cause the animals harm.

Scientists have found the pandas, which have trouble conceiving and rearing healthy cubs in zoos, are more prolific breeders in the wild. The most urgent task for saving the giant panda is to expand protected areas and guarantee them a large, natural habitat, preventing poaching and other threats to their survival.

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