Giant Panda countdown: Mating game

LOVE is hopefully in the air at Edinburgh Zoo for a momentous four-minute act that could produce the first pandas ever born in Scotland, writes Emma Cowing

Tian tian the Giant Panda is curled up on a wooden climbing structure, looking for all the world like a girl waiting for the phone to ring. In fact, with her mournful black eyes and the faintest hint of a pout on her snout, the only thing missing from her Edinburgh Zoo panda enclosure is a half-eaten Galaxy bar and Celine Dion’s All By Myself playing on a loop in the background.

But for Tian Tian, the eight-year-old female who moved to Edinburgh Zoo in December, the waiting game may finally be over: Corstorphine’s most famous resident has a red-hot date.

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After 362 days of patient waiting, Tian Tian is (almost) in the mood for love. For an animal who comes into season for only three days each year, this is big news – the panda equivalent of setting up dating profiles on Match, eHarmony and Plenty of Fish all on the same day. The keepers at Edinburgh Zoo have spent the past few weeks on tenterhooks, monitoring her hormone levels on a daily basis and awaiting the chemical changes that signal she is ready to mate. They now believe this could happen as early as this week, giving them just a few days to put all the final touches in place for the big day.

No wonder then that over the fence on the other side of the panda enclosure Yang Guang, the object of Tian Tian’s affections, is preparing for this romantic encounter in the way that most males would gear themselves up for a first date with the woman of their dreams: by lounging around, scratching himself and stuffing his face with food.

“He’s trying to gain weight,” explains Iain Valentine, the zoo’s director of animal conservation and research, also known as Mr Panda, as he peers through the glass at the animals he helped bring to Scotland from China in last year’s groundbreaking £6 million ten-year deal.

“He, too, is getting into a peak breeding period and that means trying to reach his top weight of 128kg, because being that weight makes him more comfortable with his surroundings. The last few weeks he’s been below 120kg so what he’s trying to do is make that up. We’re throwing in huge amounts of bamboo every day. Two days ago he ate 64kg.”

It is typical of the Giant Panda’s pernickity breeding habits that being comfortable with their surroundings is just one of the many factors that have to be in place in order for them to get into a loving mood, even if the event itself is more of a wham-bam affair (30 seconds to four minutes is the average, apparently) than the endless preparation would suggest. In fact, the pair are so fussy, it’s surprising they haven’t ordered a suite at the Balmoral, a magnum of Cristal and a private violin serenade performed by Nicola Benedetti.

For the past few weeks, the pandas have been making tentative moves towards each other, in the same sort of a way a clumsy teenager might attempt to woo the object of their affection via badly chosen mix tapes and awkward two-minute phone calls. Pandas are, by their very nature, solitary creatures. Outside of the mating period they have nothing to do with each other, and indeed, the males can be quite aggressive towards the females if antagonised. Given this proclivity, the two have not been formally introduced. Although they know each other is there, they have yet to catch each other’s eye across a crowded enclosure.

So it is something of a big step that in recent weeks they have, according to Valentine, been calling out to each other over the fence. They have even been scent marking the area near to each other’s enclosures. Oh, the romance.

“It’s all about the chemicals,” says Valentine. “They are both scent marking and that’s her telling him that she’s coming into season, and him reciprocating. They build up for weeks in advance, letting each other know that they are preparing to breed.”

Every day, a courier is dispatched to Chester Zoo with a sample of Tian Tian’s urine which is then tested by endocrinologist Dr Sue Walker for hormone changes. The results they are looking for are a rising level of oestrogen, meaning the good lady is in oestrus (her reproductive cycle). They expect this to happen within the next week, and when it does, it gives the zoo around a seven-day window to prepare for the act itself. Tian Tian’s oestrogen levels will continue to rise over the following days, and the zoo will also monitor the size of Tian Tian’s genitals, which will swell as the time approaches, and carry out a vaginal swab which will show cell changes that signify oestrus. When the oestrogen rises at a particularly sharp rate, accompanied by the other signifiers, as well as increased scent marking and calling – most likely around seven days after the first initial oestrogen rise – the zoo will take the plunge and put the two together for a first attempt at natural mating.

Valentine gets quite annoyed at the notion that pandas, as the story so often goes, are ineffectual breeders. “It’s one of these age-old myths that people think that pandas are very difficult to breed,” he says, as Yang Guang yawns expansively behind him. “They’ve been on the planet for eight million years. They’ve done very well. It’s only when man puts them into a captive environment that there are issues. You’re expecting two animals that might not get on, to get on.”

Ah yes, the disastrous bad date scenario. While humans who play the dating game can chalk down a bad date to poor chemistry and bad lighting and simply move on to the next free specimen, pandas are not so lucky. For Tian Tian and Yang Guang, it’s boom or bust. They are, for the next decade at least, until they are shipped off back to China, stuck with each other.

Which is why, on the day of the big date itself, the zoo will hold its breath. The entire enclosure, built at a cost of £250,000 and featuring bulletproof glass, a kitchen and a “tunnel of love”, has been entirely designed around this one encounter – with the outdoor enclosures enabling them to communicate while staying in their separate spaces, and the love tunnel allowing the male to visit the female for the ultimate act of congress. The hope is, of course, that the intimate coupling might lead to a new member of the family – and the first giant panda ever to be born on Scottish soil. Given the stakes, it’s almost surprising the keepers haven’t considered playing in a bit of Barry White to move the process along a bit.

“It will probably take place in the main indoor viewing den,” says Valentine, although a discreet veil will be drawn over any encounter to avoid prying public eyes. “The male will come through the tunnel to visit the female, rather than the other way round. We’ll do it indoors because we want to have a certain degree of control over them. If you do go in and separate them it can be quite dangerous, but you can distract them.”

The ritual itself, says Valentine, is “pretty crude”, involving some circling, some sniffing and certain degree of vocalisation. It all sounds like a typical Saturday night out on Leith Walk, and Valentine is quick to point out that the female will probably play hard to get for a little while. The hope is, however, that she will eventually submit to Yang Guang’s advances. If she does, the zoo will put the two together again later on the same day for a second attempt.

“If all went perfectly,” says Valentine, “she should be producing six to eight babies over the ten-year period. That’s the best case scenario.” This is a remark at which the publicity manager pulls a face. Tempting fate is a seductive, dangerous business in the panda game, especially when babies are involved. Although the panda breeding rate in captivity has been as high as 90 per cent in recent years, nothing is set in stone.

Indeed, in the past, some zoos have resorted to extreme measures in order to “encourage” their pandas to mate. In 2006, Chiang Mai Zoo in Thailand exposed six-year-old male panda Chuang Chuang to a number of X-rated videos, quickly dubbed panda porn, which showed pandas mating. And back in 2000, the Chinese gave some of its captive male pandas Viagra in the hope that the wonder love-drug might, er, stimulate progress. Neither venture succeeded.

The reason for such extreme tactics, other than the continuation of the species of course, is simple. In advertising terms, panda babies are big sellers. They encourage more visitors to the zoo, and allow for dream marketing scenarios. Already, the zoo has teamed up in a rather unlikely partnership with Lynx deodorant, a relationship announced on Friday when it was reported that Lynx would be the “official partner for the panda mating season at Edinburgh Zoo”. While it is unlikely the pair will be doused in Lynx Africa before their intimate encounter, it does suggest that the zoo is making some somewhat unorthodox decisions in the run-up to the big day.

One of its biggest decisions, however, and one that is being taken seriously by senior zoo staff if Tian Tian and Yuang Guang fail to make any sweet music of their own during the three-day mating window, is artificial insemination (a manoeuvre it might be slightly trickier to find a sponsor for). A number of successful panda cubs have been born as a result of this technique both in China and in other zoos abroad, including San Diego, where one of its resident females has produced a stonking five baby pandas during her ten-year Californian sojourn. But artificial insemination is not without its risks.

“The following day, if they haven’t had a natural mating, we would be in a position where we would do artificial insemination,” says Valentine. “But it would be a big step for us because we would have to knock both of them out to do it. We would have to collect a sample from the male and put the female out to insert it. You can’t just walk up to them. So that’s two anaesthesias. It’s a big risk. We are still at the point where we are trying to decide what to do.”

If Edinburgh Zoo was to take the artificial insemination route, it would also involve bringing in experts from China, and an anaesthetist from an outside veterinary college. As Valentine says: “We only get these three days to do everything.”

If, however, a panda-shaped bun did appear in the oven, the zoo, mindful of the varying panda gestation period, would be anticipating a birth in late summer, probably September. Baby pandas are born pink and tiny – not much bigger than the size of a rat – and Valentine is keen that the arrival of the first Giant Panda born in Scotland, is shared with as wide an audience as possible.

“I would have no problems giving the public access to the cubbing den, and it could be that we would be able to give the world the view of Tian Tian giving birth, live, through the panda cam,” said Valentine. “We’re considering it.”

But until the stork makes its delivery, the loved up couple will have to make do with each other. “Everything is stacked in their favour,” says Valentine. “They’re at peak breeding age, they have both bred before, and the signs are all good. Now all we can do is wait and see.”

Let’s hope we can call it panda love. «