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Edinburgh pregnancy throws zoo into panda-monium

Tian Tian the Panda in her enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo. Photo: PA

The UK's only female giant panda may be pregnant, Edinburgh Zoo revealed today after Tian Tian was artificially inseminated in April.

ITV News Scotland Correspondent Debi Edward reports:

Tian Tian (meaning Sweetie) and Yang Guang (Sunshine) arrived in Scotland from Ya'an reserve in Chengdu, China, on December 4 2011. They went on show to visitors for the first time on December 16.

It was hoped the panda would mate with her male counterpart at the zoo, but she did not display any interest in Yang Guang earlier this year.

The zoo launched a new and improved “panda-cam” so people across the world could watch the two giant pandas in the run-up to mating season in February.

However, to ensure viewers see the highest quality footage of the pandas, staff donned panda suits and roamed around the pen.

Digital manager of the Royal Zoological Society for Scotland (RZSS) Jon-Paul Orsi said that when “the time is right for the pandas to mate, it will be private and take place out of view of the 'panda-cams'”.

Yang Guang and Tian Tian in the 'love tunnel' Credit: Edinburgh Zoo

Pandas only ovulate once a year, so the pair had a 36 hour window to mate. Despite being brought together five times throughout one day, the pandas failed to do so.

A so-called 'love tunnel' between their enclosure was opened up to allow the bears to get together as zookeepers hoped to speed up the mating process.

Instead the pair wrestled inside their closure, "decreasing" the chances of producing babies this year, Edinburgh Zoo said.

Iain Valentine, director of Research & Conservation at the zoo said the attempted couplings had been "immeasurable" for the bears because they were both sexually inexperienced.

Each time the pair met we saw a huge amount of eagerness and attraction between Tian Tian and Yang Guang.

There was lots of vocalisation and encouragement from our female and physical contact between the two. He mounted her several times, however full mating did not occur.

Although both have bred before and have borne cubs with other pandas, they are both still relatively inexperienced. At the end of the day, this is year one of a ten-year conservation project here at Edinburgh Zoo.

We are hugely encouraged by how much the natural sparks flew between the two animals, as like humans, not all male and female pandas are attracted to each other. Both were keen to mate but their inexperience showed.

– Iain Valentine, director of Research & Conservation
Tian Tian and Yang Guang had a window of just 36 hours to mate Credit: PA

But despite the best efforts of staff at the zoo, the pandas ran out of time to mate as their limited breeding season drew to a close.

Hence in April, Tian Tian was artificially inseminated with frozen semen from another panda called Bao Bao who lived at Berlin Zoo.

Mr Valentine said:

It would have been amazing if the pandas had mated naturally, however artificial insemination is the next best thing for the overall global conservation effort and the individual biology of Tian Tian our female.

Like IVF, artificial insemination is essentially an opportunity for science to give nature a helping hand.

– Iain Valentine, director of Research & Conservation
Tian Tian showing 'nesting behaviour'. Credit: Royal Zoological Society of Scotland

However, after months of waiting, the RZSS has revealed that Tian Tian may be pregnant. A second hormone rise in progesterone was confirmed on Wednesday, which indicates she may be expecting a cub or experiencing a pseudo pregnancy.

If there is a cub, it could be born between late August and September.

Tian Tian the panda has displayed 'phantom pregnancy' before. Credit: Royal Zoological Society of Scotland

Edinburgh Zoo said "not to get too excited yet" over the news as it is not certain, but that the "indications look good".

Confirming a female panda’s pregnancy is never straight forward and we would encourage people to try not to get too excited just yet – I know it is easier said than done though!

Further hormone results will be available roughly by mid-August that will add to the picture – if Tian Tian is not pregnant specific hormone levels should drop back down to zero.

– Iain Valentine, director of Research & Conservation

If the panda is confirmed as pregnant a Chinese expert will fly over prior to the birth and then remain at Edinburgh Zoo for the first few months of the cub's life.