Sweet love is key to baby giant pandas

EAT shoots and breed? Sugary bamboo freshly imported from China could help Britain to deliver the country’s first panda cub, it is hoped.

Edinburgh zoo’s resident giant pandas — Tian Tian and Yang Guang — are limbering up for their annual sexual encounter, prompting officials to ponder what, if anything, can be done to ensure the liaison is productive.

According to Iain Valentine, director of the giant panda project and strategic innovations for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, bamboo shoots from China could be key to a successful panda pregnancy.

Last year, Tian Tian fed heavily on bamboo stems and leaves imported from Holland. She did get pregnant but suffered a miscarriage.

There is no evidence Tian Tian’s diet played a role, but Valentine believes feasting on sugar-rich bamboo shoots will help her to bulk up and increase her chances of going full-term.

The zoo’s Dutch suppliers of bamboo are reluctant to supply shoots as this means the crop cannot be regrown. There is, however, a bountiful supply in China. Valentine estimates that a ton of Chinese bamboo shoots would be needed.

Yang Guang, the male panda at Edinburgh ZooYang Guang, the male panda at Edinburgh Zoo (Andrew Milligan)

“Fresh, sugar-rich bamboo is difficult to get hold of, but if possible we will bring it in from China. The shoots are jam-packed with sugar and a little goes a long way. It’s like eating a stick of Blackpool rock.”

Giant pandas are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity; the female’s breeding window lasts for just 36 hours and they can become so temperamental that they have been known to attack potential suitors.

Against such odds, Tian Tian and Yang Guang — whose names mean Sweetie and Sunshine — mated last year after private boudoirs, access to a pool and a tunnel of love helped them to get amorous. Even so, they failed to conceive naturally and Tian Tian was artificially inseminated.

Valentine said there are encouraging signs that the bears were preparing to mate. They have been seen looking at each longingly through a grille separating their enclosures.

In the wild, males compete to show female pandas how fit and virile they are, with the “best” male being the one to scent as high as possible.

Yang Guang started his courtship earlier than expected and has been seen scent-marking as high up as possible by doing handstands against trees, walls and rocks since early January.

Analysis of Tian Tian’s progesterone and oestrogen levels show the latter are higher than the former, meaning she should start to ovulate within the next fortnight.

On Friday, Professor Wang Chengdong, from the China Conservation and Research Centre for Giant Pandas, flew into Edinburgh to assist in decoding the bears’ behaviour in the run-up to the breeding window.

Valentine said that this year, unlike last, the grille between enclosures will be blocked off when Tian Tian’s breeding window closes.

He said it was possible Sweetie could get stressed and jeopardise her pregnancy if she catches a whiff of Sunshine’s scent.

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