Relaxing music and a strict training regime: How Edinburgh zoo is preparing to try and get its two giant pandas to mate

A flurry of preparations is being made in the hope that Britain’s only two giant pandas will mate.

With the female panda only in season for less than 48 hours and the success rate in captivity notoriously low, the pressure for female Tian Tian and male Yang Guang at Edinburgh Zoo is immense.

Zoo staff and experts, brought in from Berlin, are doing all they can to prepare the pair including playing relaxing music in Yang Guang’s pen and managing a strict diet and training regime for both of them.

Tian Tian

Male panda Yang Guang

Panda preparations: It is hoped that Britain's only two giant pandas - female Tian Tian (left) and male Yang Guang (right) - will mate and preparations are taking place at Edinburgh Zoo in the hope it will be a success


If they succeed, the pandas’ cubs will become the first born in the UK, but it will also be a significant step in the fight to save the endangered species – there are just 1,500 remaining in the wild.

Already both pandas have started to show important changes in their behaviour which are encouraging signs that they are ready to mate soon.

Physical changes suggest that the ideal date for mating will be Easter Sunday.

The nine-year-old pair arrived from China at the Scottish zoo in December 2011 but previous mating attempts have not been successful.

As a contingency plan, experts from Berlin have been brought in to perform artificial insemination on Tian Tian as well as the hoped natural mating.

Iain Valentine, director of giant pandas at Edinburgh Zoo, said of the two methods being used: ‘This follows the best practice methodology adopted by other panda-keeping zoos around the world and gives our giant pandas the best possible chance of success.’
The male is being fed more bamboo to increase his stamina. He is currently eating 110lbs a day but this will be increased to 220lbBody weight in food: The male is being fed more bamboo to increase his stamina. He is currently eating 110lbs a day but this will be increased to 220lb, his whole body weight in bamboo

Tian Tian will be in season for less than 48 hours and females are also known to be very selective on their mates, making the act of mating a very difficult processSmall window of opportunity: Tian Tian will be in season for less than 48 hours and females are also known to be very selective on their mates, making the act of mating a very difficult process

It is hoped the pandas will bear and rear cubs during their 10-year stay at the zoo.

The success rate of breeding giant pandas in captivity has been notoriously low. Few zoos outside China have managed to achieve results.

Females are in season for such a small window and are also known to be very selective on their mates.

Tian Tian, which means sweetie, and Yang Guang, which means sunshine, have been kept apart for their mating preparations since their unsuccessful attempt last year.

Yang Guang is being trained to stand on his hind quarters to strength his legs in preparation for doing the deed, which lasts just two minutes.

 The pandas have also been able to glimpse each other through a grate as their reunion approaches in an attempt to 'tease' them. They will be gradually introduced to each other as the date approachesReunion: The pandas have been able to glimpse each other through a grate as their reunion approaches in an attempt to 'tease' them. They will be gradually introduced to each other as the date approaches

A whistle and rewards such as carrots and apples have been used to encourage him to stand.

Tian Tian is also being trained to stand so zoo keepers can perform ultrasound scans to monitor her ovaries and womb, and hopefully the pregnancy. She has also been trained to urinate on cue making it easier for keepers to get samples to detect changes in her hormone levels which can indicate when the right moment for mating will be.

Indoor light timers have been fitted in both their pens to mimic outside sunlight levels so both pandas can undergo physiological changes at the same time.

The male is being fed more bamboo to increase his stamina. He is currently eating 110lbs a day but this will be increased to 220lb which is almost his whole body weight in food.

Mr Valentine told The Sunday Telegraph: ‘It is physically demanding for the male, as though he has got weight and power on his side, the female does not make it easy.
Yang Guang recently started doing handstands against trees, walls and rocks, scent-marking as high up as possible, which is known as a display of virility in the wildEncouraging sign: Yang Guang recently started doing handstands against trees, walls and rocks, scent-marking as high up as possible, which is known as a display of virility in the wild

‘We are training him to help him cope with that.

‘He has got to be physically, mentally and chemically pumped up.’

Tian Tian’s urine samples from when she was in season last year have been dabbed around Yang Guang’s pen to increase his hormone levels.

In the wild, male pandas would track down the female in season by tracking the chemical signals given off by her urine. It also triggers hormonal and chemical changes in the male’s body.

Smooth Radio is being played in his pen as well to relax him after his adjustment to his new home has been difficult. New Year’s fireworks, planes and high winds have unsettled him in the past.

The pandas have also been able to glimpse each other through a grate as their reunion approaches in an attempt to ‘tease’ them. They will be gradually introduced to each other as the date approaches.
Tian Tian has already started calling out to the male which is common during breeding season, and her urine samples from when she was in season last year have been dabbed around Yang Guang's pen to increase his hormone levelsMating call: Tian Tian has already started calling out to the male which is common during breeding season, and her urine samples from when she was in season last year have been dabbed around Yang Guang's pen to increase his hormone levels

Yang Guang recently started doing handstands against trees, walls and rocks, scent-marking as high up as possible, which is known as a display of virility in the wild.

Meanwhile Tian Tian has already started calling out to the male which is common during breeding season.

Artificial insemination is fraught with danger for both pandas that will have to be put under general anaesthetic, but will be done to increase the chances of a successful mating season.

Staff will then have to wait 180 days until cubs are born.

Two incubators have been installed in at the zoo to give the cubs the best chance of surviving.

Breeding in captivity has become vital to the giant pandas’ survival with the destruction of bamboo forests in China and south-east Asia.

The pair are the first giant pandas to come to the UK in 17 years after a panda called Ming was sent back to China in 1994.

Two pandas were sent to the UK from China in 1974 but were unsuccessful.

Currently there are 36 pandas in 15 zoos and parks outside of China.
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