The Year of the Panda

It's the year of the panda boom in China.

So far this year, 26 panda cubs have been born in captivity.

That's a new record.

Last year, there were 25 births, of which 21 pandas survived.

Much of the panda birth success has been at the Wolong Panda Research Center in southwest China.

The newest arrival there, Ying Ying, was born on Sept. 13. That was just two days after panda twins were born.

Li Desheng, the research center's deputy director, was like a proud parent, as he said to ABC News that 16 panda cubs had been born at Wolong this year.

That equals last year's tally, and there are two more pregnant giant pandas.

When we visited Wolong in the spring, the grounds of the panda nursery were already a riot of black and white balls of fur.

We were treated to an hour of taping in the panda playground.

The toddlers were engrossed with their swings, slides and rolling barrels.

The playtime is intended to help them socialize and learn to interact with other pandas.

Once we entered the grounds, though, the frisky cubs were much more interested in the visiting Homo sapiens.

They attacked our legs and arms, challenging us to friendly wrestling matches. They were literally quite a handful. Their sharp teeth and claws also shredded a couple of overcoats.

It is always a joy to see these creatures thriving and adjusting so well. Their earliest days are often quite precarious.

Smaller than an adult human's hand at birth, newborn pandas are often crushed accidentally by their mothers.

Twin cubs seem to be a new phenomenon in the panda game.

The twins born at Wolong are the 10th set of twins born to captive pandas this year -- six in Wolong, three in Chengdu, and one in Chongqing.

Chinese researchers say this is a sign of the growing success of China's panda breeding program, which relies heavily on artificial insemination.

China began to artificially inseminate giant pandas in the 1960s, but there were few successful cases.

Chinese scientists made a major breakthrough in artificial breeding in the 1990s, and the number of newborn cubs in captivity has since increased dramatically from only nine in 2000.

According to panda experts, there is a greater probability for giant pandas in captivity to give birth to twins compared to pandas in the wild.

They point out that more than 60 pandas in captivity have given birth to twins -- more than half the total number of deliveries -- and in one case the result was triplets.

While the genetic factor has to be considered, Chinese researchers say the key factor is the use of artificial reproduction technology.

"We've pretty much resolved the problems of infertility among pandas," Zhang Zhihe, the director of the Chengdu Panda Research Center, said to China's state media.

So, the impressive numbers continue to grow.

China's State Forestry Administration now says that there are more than 180 pandas living in captivity in China.

There are 103 captive pandas in the Wolong research center, which is located in a scenic mountain range in Sichuan province that was selected last July as a World Heritage site.

The Chengdu research center has 48 giant pandas.

The goal is still to increase the numbers of pandas living free, however.

There's good news there as well, which may reflect success in the Chinese crackdown on poaching pandas.

Experts previously estimated that there were more than 1,590 giant pandas living in the wild in China, but Chinese and British scientists announced last June that there could be as many as 3,000 after they conducted a survey using a new method for profiling the DNA of giant pandas from their feces.