Day 1 of Edinburgh Zoo panda mating ends in anti-climax

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IF THE mating habits of Chinese pandas could be reduced to Scots argot, it would be a case of “get your coat, you’ve pulled”.

Any fears that Yang Guang and Tian Tian would prefer to fight rather than love evaporated yesterday as the pair growled their desire, enjoyed a brief tussle but did not actually manage to do the deed.

Yang Guang: Fears of fighting were allayed. Picture: Neil Hanna

Yang Guang: Fears of fighting were allayed. Picture: Neil Hanna

Their “brief encounters” came after the keepers at Edinburgh Zoo opened the “love tunnel” between the two enclosures, allowing them to meet for the first time, after tests revealed that Tian Tian, which means “sweetie”, was ovulating.

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Female pandas ovulate just once a year, giving a window of three days in which they can get pregnant. As a result, the bears were introduced five times yesterday: in the morning, and again in the early evening.

For weeks the zoo has been monitoring Tian Tian’s hormone levels by sending urine samples away for analysis and swabbing her to confirm her oestrogen levels had risen accordingly. However, it was a panda expert from China, who flew in on Saturday, who confirmed yesterday that Tian Tian was now in heat and insisted the two pandas be introduced. The zoo had planned to wait until today.

Tian Tian (back to camera) and Yang Guang face up at the love tunnel

Tian Tian (back to camera) and Yang Guang face up at the love tunnel

While the zoo plans to broadcast any future birth live on the “pandacam”, the moment of conception was deemed off limits, and the camera switched off to allow the new couple some privacy. The full-length plate-glass viewing galleries were also closed.

The pair were first introduced at 9am for five minutes. They were then separated for 15 minutes before being re-introduced, once again for just five minutes, with the process repeated three more times in the afternoon.

A spokeswoman for the zoo said: “Tian Tian was calling out to Yang Guang constantly and he was calling back. They both seemed keen to get to grips with one another and, although there is the fear that they may fight, we didn’t have to worry.

“At one point Tian Tian moved away from Yang Guang and he just grabbed her and pulled her back to him. There was no aggression.

“Although he did try and mount her on two occasions, he didn’t actually succeed. Let’s just say there was a lot of foreplay.”

Tian Tian and Yang Guang arrived in Scotland from Ya’an reserve in Chengdu, China, on 4 December last year as a result of a £6 million deal which will see the animals spend the next ten years in Edinburgh Zoo. The pandas, which are the first to live in Britain for 17 years, went on show to visitors on 16 December and have sent attendance figures soaring.

The couple, who have separately produced cubs in China, will be re-introduced again today, but even if they do manage to mate, it will be several months before the zoo authorities will know whether Tian Tian is pregnant. They can display the signs of a phantom pregnancy.

If Yang Guang fails to mate with Tian Tian, the zoo has considered artificial insemination, which would require both animals to be sedated. However, they have ruled this out for the time being, preferring to let nature take its course.