Bear Necessities: How to pander to a panda
As Edinburgh Zoo awaits its new arrivals, Emma Cowing learns just how high maintenance these rarest bears are
• Pandas are fussy creatures, but that does not stop avid fans lavishing them with gifts, and zoo keepers pandering to their every need
THE pandas are coming - but just how easy is it to care for two of the rarest and most exotic bears on the planet? Here, we take a look at the ins and outs of keeping a giant panda. You wouldn't want one in the house…
Pandas, it might be fair to say, are not the world's most enthusiastic breeders. Female pandas are only fertile for several days a year, and can also be incredibly picky about Mr Right, which is why many of the panda cubs born in captivity in China are raised in pairs, in the hope that they will become soulmates. Male pandas on the other hand are incredibly coy with the opposite sex - the animal equivalent of Mr Bean - and often come over all shy when expected to make the first move.
All of this, along with the fact that most pandas, upon being brought into captivity, seem to lose all interest in mating at all, means that they are possibly the most difficult animals in the world to breed, and are at constant threat of extinction.
This has led to some desperate measures by some breeding programmes in an effort to, ahem, "encourage" pandas to do the wild thing. In 2006, Thailand's Chiang Mai Zoo resorted to showing its six-year-old male panda, Chuang Chuang, videos that were lovingly called "panda porn", in which pandas were filmed mating, in the hope it might allow him to view his companion, five-year-old female Lin Hui, in a different light.
In 2000, China revealed it had given some of its captive male pandas Viagra, the theory being that, as male pandas can only mate for at most 30 seconds at a time, Viagra, which could allow them to last for up to 20 minutes, might stimulate progress. The project failed.
Most recently, in 2009 China confirmed the birth of its first cub successfully conceived through artificial insemination using frozen sperm, and zoos in San Diego and Mexico City hope to replicate the initiative.
For Tian Tian and Yangguang, the breeding couple moving to Scotland, hopes are high, but perhaps Edinburgh Zoo had better put an order in at the local pharmacy just in case.
They eat so much of the stuff, even their breath smells of bamboo. In fact, the average adult giant panda consumes as much as 30lbs of bamboo a day, and can spend up to 16 hours of any given day munching away.
Not only that, but they are incredibly fussy eaters, and could shame a tantrum-prone toddler with the amount of time they change their minds about what they fancy for dinner.Bamboo must be fresh - they turn their noses up at dry or wilted shoots, and most pandas only like certain types of bamboo - dependent, of course, on what type of year it is. Added to that, sometimes they will stubbornly eat only one type of bamboo for a week, before going off it and refusing to eat it ever again.
All of this can be a problem for countries where bamboo doesn't grow naturally, and zoos have had to resort to ingenious plans to keep their pandas bamboo-happy. A number of zoos, such as Singapore Zoo, have donor programmes, where members of the public offer to grow bamboo in their gardens which is then harvested by zoo officials.
America's Zoo Atlanta employs four full-time bamboo hunters who find and harvest small patches of bamboo crop in order to supply the pair of giant pandas the zoo owns in their 400lbs of bamboo per week. It's far from being an easy job. "They might eat golden bamboo from Mr Smith's yard, but they won't eat it from Mr Jones's yard," Jan Fortune, manager of the zoo's animal nutrition department, revealed.
In Washington DC, the National Zoo experienced a bamboo crop shortage in 2009, and at one point zoo keepers considered driving round the city knocking on doors of houses whose gardens grew bamboo, in the hope of staving off the hunger pangs of their three pandas.
Now Edinburgh is set to get in on the act by growing bamboo on Corstorphine Hill for Tian Tian and Yangguang. Let's just hope it's the right type of bamboo.
All that bamboo has another effect, mainly on the Panda's digestive system. Yes, pandas can defecate up to 40 times a day, producing a hefty 25lbs of the stuff. This, unsurprisingly, means that a large amount of a panda keeper's time is devoted to cleaning up panda poo. The animals themselves are remarkably unfussed by their own faeces, and will even walk about on it, but zoos, unsurprisingly, aim to keep their enclosures as clean as possible.
At Thailand's Chiang Mai Zoo, the keepers got so fed up with cleaning up such a huge amount of poop - which is often green and can occasionally be multi-coloured - that they decided to turn it into paper. The multi-coloured products, which now include notebooks, bookmarks and fans, do a roaring trade at the zoo's gift shop, although the downside is that it takes a day to clean the faeces, boil it then bleach it before leaving it to dry in the sun.
Meanwhile, according to researchers at Kitasato University in Tokyo, kitchen refuse can be reduced by over 90 per cent in mass by using the bacteria found in panda faeces, making it truly green in both senses of the word.
BRINGING UP BABY
Most pandas give birth to twins, but more often than not, only one survives beyond the first few days, as the mother can only feed one at a time and will usually select the stronger one to nurture.So fragile are new-born pandas, which weigh around a teensy 4oz and are completely blind when born, that they must be given round- the-clock care. Indeed, the mother will even have a keeper in attendance 24 hours a day in the weeks leading up to the birth.
Zoo Atlanta, whose panda Lun Lun gave birth to a cub last November, have been giving the creature almost daily vet check-ups as the cub is so precious to the zoo's economy. San Diego Zoo, meanwhile, has a special birthing den for its pandas, as well as a birthing camera which has allowed fans to watch the process live online.
Chinese tradition means that panda cubs are not named until they are 100 days old. This presumably means there are lots of confused cubs who believe their name is "you there". Tai Shan, of Washington DC's National Zoo, was nicknamed "Butterstick" in the blogosphere while he awaited his name because one zoo worker had described him as being about the size of a stick of butter when he was born. Some zoos, including San Diego and Zoo Atlanta, have held online polls, allowing members of the public to choose the cub's name.
Meanwhile, the world emitted a collective burst of laughter when pictures emerged last year of panda keepers at a panda reserve in China handling cubs while dressed in furry panda costumes. The idea was that the suits would limit the amount of human contact the pandas would have as they were prepared to be released into the wild.
As any cubs spawned by Tian Tian and Yangguang are likely to stay in captivity, the chances that panda keepers in Edinburgh will need to try on the costumes is unlikely. Then again if they want to draw in extra crowds…
While some creatures in the natural world might be happy to mark their date of birth by simply noting they are still alive, pandas demand a somewhat more lavish affair. Take Su Lin, the panda in residence at San Diego Zoo, whose fifth birthday party last August was a week-long celebration involving presents, treats, and a three-tiered birthday cake made of coloured ice, fruit, vegetables and honey icing.
Then there was Adelaide Zoo's Funi, one of only two Pandas in the Southern hemisphere, who, along with her cake, was given a huge, hand-decorated box with her name on it to play with as well as a jaunty party hat when she celebrated her fourth birthday last year.
Meanwhile, Tai Shan, formerly the resident panda at the National Zoo in Washington DC until he was shipped back to China last year, was utterly spoiled when he turned one, with gifts including a giant custom-made fruitsicle and a mini pool with a volleyball in it. Edinburgh Zoo had better get Jane Asher on the blower now.
Pandas love to roll and paddle and play.
This means their enclosures must have specially designed landscapes tailored to keep even the fussiest of pandas happy.
At Zoo Atlanta, the pandas have a moat to splash around in, and every zoo's panda enclosure features a number of pools as well as tyres on rope, which pandas enjoy swinging from. Some zoos also have hammocks for their pandas, as well as hollowed out trunks, both ideal for pandas' favourite activity of lounging around gnawing on bamboo.
Thailand's Chiang Mai Zoo features a $1 million air conditioned cage as well as an extensive fan-cooled outdoor enclosure which is even ringed by a mini-replica of the Great Wall of China.
At Adelaide Zoo, work was recently completed on a giant panda forest, which includes cooling water features, mature forest trees and chilled rocks, which the pandas, whose thick coats mean they can often get too hot, adore.
Pandas also love toys. Zoo Atlanta's former resident panda Mei Lan, who was handed back to China in 2009, had a number of balls and often picked them up in her mouth to carry around with her. At Hallowe'en her keepers even made a ghost toy for her, spookily draping some bamboo in a sheet.
Everyone loves a panda, but some can love them a little too much, like the drunken man who leapt into the panda enclosure at Beijing Zoo to give a 240lb panda named "Gu Gu" a hug, only to be bitten by an unimpressed Gu Gu in return.
Panda enclosures, therefore, need to be exceptionally high security, with moats, smooth walls and glass to prevent either a panda escape, or a human entry. Pandas are also a dab hand at opening doors thanks to their dexterous paws and claws, which means all cages must have secure locks and fastenings.
Some panda fans, however, can come in useful. Tai Shan, the National Zoo panda in Washington DC who was returned to China in 2009, boasted a set of four incredibly devoted women who met once a week at his enclosure to chat about him and seize any opportunity to talk to his keepers about his behaviour. One even spent $1,200 on an ink print of his paw.
When he was returned to the Bifengxia Panda Base in Sichuan province they trekked to the country and spent a week with him, where the keepers even allowed the women to clean out his living quarters. Now that's true panda love.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east