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Edinburgh zoo on red alert ahead of possible pitter-patter of panda paws

Tian Tian in her enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo. Photo: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

It’s been almost two weeks since Edinburgh Zoo announced it was on ‘red alert’ for the birth of a panda cub (or two) and there’s still no sign of Tian Tian going into labour. However ITV News has been told there’s still every indication that she is pregnant and it’s just a case of waiting.

A spokesperson for the zoo said:

This week has progressed much as you would expect in any possible pregnancy, meaning it has involved a lot of wait and see. Tian Tian is doing very well, her hormone results continue to paint a positive picture and she has spent most of the week sleeping in her cubbing box. Once we have further news we will let you know!

Tian Tian in her enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo. Credit: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

The zoo’s panda keepers are monitoring Tian Tian 24 hours a day with CCTV cameras in her den linked to their computers at home. They will immediately be able to tell she has started labour because, her waters will break and she will start bleating. An expert team, including panda keeper Haiping Hu from China’s Conservation and Research Centre, are on standby for the birth.

The Zoo has two new incubators on site ready for possible round the clock shifts to care for any cub which needs to be hand reared. If Tian Tian does have twins then one cub will be taken away from her and cared for by keepers because while pandas often give birth to twins in the wild, they are only able to raise one at a time, leaving the second twin to perish. Any cub born will be the property of the People’s Republic of China and when aged two it would be returned to China, which is its natural age for release into the wild.

Is Tian Tian's partner Yang Guang the father of her possible cub - or cubs? Credit: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

The birth of a cub or cubs at Edinburgh Zoo also poses the conundrum known locally as ‘zoodunnit’. When Tian Tian was artificially inseminated in April, samples were used from both her Edinburgh Zoo neighbour and would-be mate Yang Guang and also from a panda called Bao Bao who died at Berlin Zoo last year. Paternity is likely to be confirmed within the first three months and if it’s twins they could have different parentage.

One thing that’s not open to question at the moment is the boost the arrival of a panda cub would give to the zoo. Earlier this year Edinburgh Zoo confirmed that visitor numbers in the last year had gone up by 51% following the arrival of Tian Tian and Yang Guang, or Sweetie and Sunshine as they are called in English. The panda pair have also helped increase income by more than £5m to £15m. In fact their arrival in December 2011 couldn’t have come at a better time for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. At that time the zoo was operating at a loss, with heavy debt and struggling amid a series of management rows and resignations.

Zoo keepers are watching Tian Tian 24/7. Credit: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

Sweetie and Sunshine have helped turn that around and not only increased visitor numbers, the zoo has been able to cash in on the sale of panda merchandise. Its shop stocks everything from panda teddy bears, earrings, hats and bags right through to ceramic tiles and even panda onesies. In 2012 70,000 panda bears were sold at £10 each.

There are estimates the wider Edinburgh economy could stand to benefit anywhere in the region of £25-50m from the arrival of a panda cub in the city. This would be largely down to increased visits to the Scottish capital but from sponsorship and marketing opportunities.

All of this, of course, rests on the imminent pitter patter of panda paws and it’s really starting to remind me of another recent birth which had the world watching and waiting…