Giant panda Tian Tian will be ready to mate within two weeks, zoo keepers have revealed.
Experts at Edinburgh Zoo have been monitoring the female’s hormones and said she will shortly enter her brief fertile period.
They hope Tian Tian and the zoo’s male panda Yang Guang will produce a cub this year as the creatures both start to show the tell-tale signs that they are ready to breed.
There was disappointment last year when the pair did not mate, and although Tian Tian was artificially inseminated, she lost her foetus at late term.
Tests showed the panda’s oestrogen levels rose higher than her progesterone levels on Tuesday - a key sign that she will be ready to breed in the next seven to 14 days.
Iain Valentine, from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), which runs the zoo, said: “Panda breeding season is progressing nicely and over the coming days both Tian Tian and Yang Guang’s behaviour will become much more pronounced as we get closer to the breeding window.
“They will become more restless, scent-marking will increase and they will call to each other. Now that we have seen the hormone crossover we will begin enclosure swapping more regularly, which encourages breeding behaviours.
“Panda breeding season remains a delicate and complex affair, which takes in cutting-edge science from not only within Scotland but also abroad.”
Experts will watch Tian Tian’s behaviour closely over the coming days to gauge when her 36-hour breeding window begins. Professor Wang Chengdong, from the China Conservation and Research Centre for Giant Pandas (CCRCGP), will arrive in Edinburgh today to help decode both pandas’ behaviour in the run up to the mating period.
If the pandas do not mate then artificial insemination will take place. This will be overseen by specialists from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin.
Mr Valentine said: “The survival of the giant panda is crucial. Firstly, the species does not live in a vacuum and a lot of panda conservation resources go towards managing and protecting a large amount of reserves in China, which also directly benefits other species living within these areas.
“Secondly, giant pandas act as ambassadors, raising awareness about conservation in general. When visitors come to see Tian Tian and Yang Guang they also learn about the plight of many other animals, the importance of preserving ecological diversity and how they can help.”
Tian Tian (Sweetie) and Yang Guang (Sunshine) are the first giant pandas to live in the UK for 17 years. They arrived on loan from China in December 2011 and will remain at Edinburgh Zoo for a decade.
Zoo bosses hoped the pair would mate naturally last year when she came into season but ruled out putting them together after assessing Tian Tian’s behaviour.
She was inseminated using semen from Yang Guang and frozen semen from Bao Bao, a ‘’genetically important’’ panda which died in Berlin Zoo the previous year.