It was reported a couple of weeks ago that Tian Tian, the female giant panda currently housed at Edinburgh Zoo, might be pregnant. She was artificially inseminated in April of this year after failed mating attempts with the zoo’s resident male, Yang Guang, and is now apparently showing hormonal and behavioural indications of pregnancy. None of this, of course, is set in stone – pandas have been known to experience phantom pregnancies in zoos before – but if she was pregnant, it would be the first panda born in the UK – ever.
It’s quite obvious due to the media frenzy and excitement following any panda birth that these animals rarely reproduce in captivity, so what’s the problem? And is it different in the wild? Well, pandas could never be described as prodigious breeders, and indeed it was once thought that their wild counterparts often failed to breed as well, but recent research has revealed otherwise.
Male pandas may gather and compete during the brief breeding season, and the dominant male in the area will mate with the local female several times. The only downside is that females are only interested in sex once per year, for the window of opportunity in which they are sexually receptive rarely last longer than 3 days. Yes, if you take the time to do the maths, this means pandas devote less than 1% of their entire lives to sexual activity – not a great deal if you intend on passing on your genes. Nonetheless, this slow-but-steady strategy obviously worked well for them before we started fragmenting their vital bamboo forests and splitting up their population.
So, massive habitat destruction aside, pandas can breed fine – if a little slowly – in the wild. Why are they so unwilling to breed in captivity then? The short answer is that we’re not entirely sure. Perhaps the reason is behavioural; most pandas in zoos, after all, live as a single pair so males don’t get the chance to compete with one another as they would naturally. And maybe it is that these competitions help to give younger and more inexperienced males a chance to learn how to mate properly, something that captive-bred individuals don’t get to experience.
Whatever the reason for this, the chances of giant pandas procreating within zoos was once vanishingly low, and this gave rise to some unusual (and extreme) methods to try and coerce them into becoming intimate. Viagra was used to no success whatsoever, although one researcher blamed the individual pandas that the drug was used on rather than the drug itself, claiming they had merely used the ‘wrong pandas’. Another method has been to give the animals ‘panda porn’ – basically videos showing other pandas mating – to increase their arousal, but although some centres in China claim to have experienced great success thanks to this method, such results have not been seen elsewhere in the world.
These days, though, pandas do breed more readily in zoos than they once did, and artificial insemination have increased births significantly. If Tian Tian is indeed pregnant – and a giant panda’s short gestation period means we she would give birth to a tiny, underdeveloped cub (possibly twins) as early as late August – then the father could either be Yang Guang or Bao Bao, the elderly panda who died in Berlin Zoo last year and whose sperm was collected and frozen before his death for such an occasion. In a procedure reminiscent of Jeremy Kyle (minus, perhaps, all of the artificial insemination), DNA tests will have to be carried out to settle the paternity riddle of the cub(s).
Maybe, just maybe, pandas are so reluctant to breed in captivity because they are just really shy. Mating in the secluded bamboo forests of China is one thing, but perhaps mating in a foreign land under the constant gaze of scientists in white lab coats and zoo guests shouting and banging on the glass is just too crass and undignified for them. Even with all that free porn.