Bashful pandas given a bit of help

Banbury Cake: Tian Tian failed to mate naturally so has been artificially inseminated Tian Tian failed to mate naturally so has been artificially inseminated

The UK's only female giant panda has been artificially inseminated after she and her intended partner failed to mate naturally.

Edinburgh Zoo bosses were hopeful that Tian Tian would mate with male Yang Guang this year, but moved on to artificial insemination after her hormone levels started to fall quickly.

The procedure was carried out on Sunday using samples from Yang Guang.

Experts said they will not know for certain whether Tian Tian is pregnant until she gives birth, which could be in August or September.

Their hopes of a pregnancy follow last year's disappointment when the pair did not mate. Although Tian Tian was artificially inseminated, she lost her foetus at late term.

Iain Valentine, director of giant pandas for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland ( RZSS), said: "From the start, when the pandas started to show breeding behaviour early this spring, both were showing very positive signs.

"We were hopeful natural mating would occur this year, but in the end Tian Tian's hormones started to fall quickly, which meant her breeding window could be much shorter.

"Although our Chinese expert Dr Wang Chengdong, from the China Conservation and Research Centre for Giant Pandas (CCRCGP), was confident the pair would mate naturally, after the first unsuccessful introduction attempt, time restrictions meant we needed to move quickly to artificial insemination.

"The artificial insemination procedure was undertaken by reproduction specialists Professor Dr Thomas Hildebrandt, Dr Frank Goeritz and Dr Robert Hermes, from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin, along with RZSS's veterinary and panda teams."

Experts at Edinburgh Zoo monitored Tian Tian's hormones to establish when she would enter her brief fertile period.

They also watched her behaviour closely to gauge when her 36-hour breeding window would begin.

The zoo said both pandas recovered well from the artificial insemination and were up and about soon afterwards, with Yang Guang enjoying honey and bamboo 15 minutes later.

Mr Valentine said: "The panda enclosure will remain closed to the public until Wednesday, but both pandas have been out and about, are eating well and are in good health.

"As giant pandas experience pseudo pregnancies and delayed implantation, it is very likely we will not 100% know if Tian Tian is pregnant until she gives birth. This is usually August to September but can continue much later, as we saw last year."

Tian Tian (Sweetie) and Yang Guang (Sunshine) are the first giant pandas to live in the UK for 17 years. The pair, now both aged 10, arrived on loan from China in December 2011 and will remain at Edinburgh Zoo for a decade.

The zoo said the panda breeding programme can play an important role in conservation.

Chris West, chief executive of the RZSS, said: "As a conservation organisation, we believe giant pandas are too important a species to be allowed to become extinct.

"Although the breeding window is incredibly brief, pandas are in actual fact not poor breeders. They existed on the planet for many millennia before man intervened and deforestation caused the increasing fragmentation of populations.

"As a result of a partnership with the China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA), a non-profit national organisation dedicated to giant panda conservation and the largest conservation organisation in China, we are bringing our skills in genetics and animal husbandry to ensure a genetically healthy and diverse population exists ex-situ, as well as in the wild."

He added: "If we can successfully assist Tian Tian and Yang Guang to breed, we will be adding to the total number of pandas in zoos around the world and in breeding centres in China. The more there are, the greater and more diverse the gene pool is from which pandas can be selected for re-introduction.

The panda gestation period is typically five months and one or two cubs will be born.

They enter the world blind, hairless and unable to move - making them entirely dependent on their mother for survival for their first weeks.

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