Pandas unveiled to public at Edinburgh Zoo

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RECLINING on a rock, gnawing on a leafy stalk of bamboo, Yang Guang undoubtedly looks ready to receive his public.

The “show-off” of Edinburgh Zoo’s new giant panda pair played up to the cameras as the duo were unveiled for the first time yesterday in their new enclosure.

Yang Guang, tucking into some bamboo, makes his first appearance in front of the media. Photo: Neil Hanna

Yang Guang, tucking into some bamboo, makes his first appearance in front of the media. Photo: Neil Hanna

His prospective mate, Tian Tian, was more shy, preferring to spend time in their indoor accommodation, rather than pose in the outdoor enclosure, where panda fans can watch from behind a glass window.

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s head keeper, Alison MacLean, said the pair, who were flown to Scotland from China just eight days ago, had settled in well and were enjoying the cold, damp Scottish weather.

They have already shown signs of interest in each other, peering through the grate between their enclosures at each other and putting up their paws to the metal, which is unusual in pandas, who are usually solitary creatures.

Daily training has already seen male Yang Guang respond to hand gestures from his keepers – while Ms MacLean admitted she has had to learn the Chinese inflections to be understood by the pandas.

“Yang Guang in particular will respond to his name,” she said. “But I try to mimic the inflections the Chinese keepers would have used, rather than how we would say it.”

Training is rewarded with treats of carrots and panda cake – a steamed mixture of soya oil, corn and rice put together by Ms MacLean following a recipe sent from China.

“I have tasted it – it’s actually rather nice,” admitted Ms MacLean, who spends from 7am to 5pm at the zoo with the pandas – and then rushes home to track them on a webcam to ensure their progress throughout the night, when they are monitored on site by other members of staff.

Two Chinese panda experts are currently at the zoo and are due to stay for around a month to help the pair settle in.

On show only to members of the zoo’s friends and family network yesterday, the pandas will go on display to the general public on Friday. A total of 10,000 tickets have already been allocated to people for slots to see the pandas between now and the end of January.

Head of animals Darren McGarry said any fears over Tian Tian’s health following the trip had been allayed as the panda settled into her new home.

Last week, the zoo’s head of conservation and research, Iain Valentine, warned that the female panda had not endured the journey as well as Yang Guang – and said the date the duo were due to go on public show could be put back if she did not recover in time. “There are no problems with either of them at all,” said Mr McGarry.

“Tian Tian is naturally more shy than Yang Guang – he’s the show-off. She sometimes prefers to spend time inside. They have very different personalities.”

Mr McGarry said the zoo had hopes that the pair would produce cubs – but said they would not resort to “panda porn” – a technique used by keepers in some zoos where pandas are shown videos of other pandas mating to get them in the mood.

Breeding season only lasts three days and can occur at any time between early February and May. Keepers will watch for signs that Tian Tian is on heat – if she is “presenting” her tail to Yang Guang, she is likely to be ready.

“We will hit the jackpot if we put them together and then they mate, but if over time we find things are not progressing, we can do things like use extended bamboo sticks to lift her tail [a sign that the female panda is ready to mate],” he said.

“Or if they do not breed over the next couple of years, we could look at artificial insemination, but we will give them time.”

• What makes a ‘typical day’ for Edinburgh Zoo’s newest residents?

Like any good new arrival, male panda Yang Guang is sleeping through the night.

His usual routine of snoozing from 9pm to 7am is in sharp contrast to his female companion, Tian Tian, whose sleeping patterns are more erratic.

After a breakfast – which lasts most of the day – of bamboo, the pandas are allowed to roam freely around their enclosures, which have both outdoor and indoor facilities.

The pair eat about 25-30kg of bamboo every day. At 11am, one of four daily training sessions begins, teaching them how to communicate with their keepers. But hard work does not come without its reward. As a post-training treat, the pair tuck into panda cake after each session – in Yang Guang’s case a massive 450g cake, while Tian Tian eats about half that and a further 100g each of carrots.

Panda factfile: Yang Guang

Age: Eight

Born: Woolong, China

Likes: Showing off, exploring, food

Dislikes: Not being the centre of attention

What the keeper says: “He participates in his training every time and will allow keepers very close with no aggression. He loves to be outdoors, even in the heavy rain, though once he’s eaten, he likes to climb into his basket for a snooze. In essence, he is a gentle giant.”

Panda factfile: Tian Tian

Age: Eight

Born: Beijing, China

Likes: Time in her enclosure, panda cakes

Dislikes: Too much attention

What the keeper says: “Tian Tian is quiet and appears quite reserved and eats very slowly and delicately. However, this ladylike image hides a mischievous side and she will have a swipe at you if you are not careful. Sometimes she participates in her training and sometimes she doesn’t. She appears to be a panda of great character and very smart.”