Zoo bosses are hoping it will be a case of third time lucky for would-be parents Tian Tian and Yang Guang.
After months of waiting, Edinburgh Zoo has confirmed that they no longer believe female panda Tian Tian is going to have a cub.
Sadly, experts believe the ten-year-old bear had conceived and carried a foetus until late term but then lost it.
The enclosure has been shut until the end of the week to give Tian Tian time to get back into her routine and provide keepers with the chance to recuperate.
But panda expert Jeroen Jacobs remains positive for the future – adding no foreign zoo has ever successfully bred the animals in less than three years of welcoming them.
He said: “My first reaction of course is that it’s very sad. Even though it was a bit of an unusual pregnancy, we were all still hoping something would happen.
“I feel sad for all the people who were watching and waiting and hoping to see the UK’s first panda cub and of course for the staff at the zoo who did a great job trying to make it happen.
“But I’m hopeful for the breeding programme and that next year will be the year. I’m sure the experts will have learned much from what happened this time round.
“This cub would have been a great addition to the captive breeding programme.
“There has never been a foreign zoo which has been successful in its breeding programme in the first two years. So it’s not like everybody is panicking that it’s not going to work. It’s simply biology and you can’t really disagree with that.”
Both animals have produced offspring before, with Tian Tian previously giving birth to twins. Female pandas are fertile for only two or three days each year, usually at some time between March and May.
Chris West, chief executive officer for the RZSS said: “We’re all saddened by this turn of events after so many weeks of waiting.
“Timings are difficult to pinpoint at this moment, but we had a meeting this morning where Tian Tian’s behaviour and hormone results were reviewed and have come to the conclusion that it is very likely she has lost the pregnancy.
“Up until now, Tian Tian has consistently shown signs of pregnancy – she passed a mucus plug around mid-September and began producing colostrum. She also experienced a prolonged secondary-rise in progesterone.
“However, the veterinary team has noticed a significant decline in the amount of colostrum being produced and over the last few days she has returned to the normal eating and behavioural patterns of a non-pregnant panda.
“The majority of research centres and zoos with giant pandas around the world have not successfully bred until the third or fourth year and what we have achieved considering we have had giant pandas for less than two years is immense.
“New hormone research is beginning to indicate that lost pregnancies are more common in giant pandas than first thought, though at the moment no one knows why.”
Next year’s pregnancy plan starts in January and tests indicate their bamboo could be key to boosting 2014 chances. Edinburgh Zoo will join an elite gang and follow in the footsteps of Atlanta, San Diego, Madrid and Vienna zoos if a cub is born.
The pandas failed to mate in 2012, despite the zoo’s efforts to bring the bears together.
It had been estimated that a baby panda could be worth as much as £50 million to the Edinburgh economy over the next decade – or more if Tian Tian gives birth to twins.
Graham Birse, director of the Edinburgh Institute at Edinburgh Napier, said: “It’s a set back, that’s for sure.
“We had built up our hopes and the world’s hopes that their might be something significant happening at Edinburgh Zoo, but that ship has sailed for now.
“There will be disappointment, perhaps even embarrassment - but it’s not the end of the story by any means.
“No doubt the zoo’s vets and their Chinese advisors will be looking closely at what the scenario is next year. I think we will be redoubling our efforts.”
The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland has reported its overall income soared to nearly £15 million last year, and the number of visitors leapt by 51 per cent following the arrival of Tian Tian and Yang Guang in late December 2011.
Around 500,000 people visited the zoo in the year following the pandas’ arrival in December 2011. Visitors included actor Nicole Kidman and the Princess Royal.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try
BREEDING pandas in captivity is notoriously difficult and zoos have had varying degrees of success.
San Diego’s programme has been one of the most successful. China agreed to loan a pair of giant pandas to the zoo for 12 years in an international effort to save the rare animals from extinction, part of a $1 million-a-year deal.
The programme is credited with birthing and raising the first and second giant pandas in the US that survived into adulthood.
In subsequent years, the zoo raised three more pandas, and its sixth cub – Xiao Liwu, the fifth cub of mother Bai Yun and father Gao Gao – was born in July 2012.
In September, hopes that Adelaide Zoo’s giant pandas would mate were dashed for a third year.
Wang Wang and Funi arrived in Australia on a decade-long loan from China in 2009 and there were hopes of breeding the southern hemisphere’s first baby pandas.
A reproductive expert was flown in from China to assist, with scientists at Adelaide’s Repromed Fertility Clinic tracking when Funi would ovulate.
But the pair failed to produce a cub – both natural mating
and artificial insemination
A giant panda cub at the National Zoo in Washington died in September 2012 as the zoo’s frustration with breeding giant pandas continued.
Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the cub’s father by artificial insemination, are on loan to the National Zoo from China.
The pair has only produced one living cub, Tai Shan, in 2005.
Taipei Zoo in Taiwan celebrated this year after a female cub was born there in July.
Mother Yuan Yuan and father Tuan Tuan, conceived her with the help of artificial insemination.
The family of pandas hit the headlines when the young cub was taken away from its mother at birth so it could be cared for better, before being reintroduced.
In August, the first panda born in captivity in Europe through natural conception was delivered at Tiergarten Schnbrunn, Austria.
The baby, the offspring of mother Yang Yang and Long Hui, was four inches long and 3.5 ounces in weight.
Zoo Atlanta officials were surprised when a pregnant giant panda gave birth to not one, but two cubs.
The pair were the first giant panda twins born in the US in 25 years.
Staff split the tiny cubs time between a zoo incubator and their mother.
Lessons will be learned
EXPERTS at the zoo are to examine every aspect of Tian Tian’s pregnancy in an attempt to identify what went wrong.
Director of animals, education and conservation, Iain Valentine, described the animals as “incredibly difficult to breed”. He said: “Pandas are a complicated species. We have always said, getting a pregnant panda is one thing – getting a panda to full term is another thing.
“There were good indications of a pregnancy. Unfortunately, somewhere through that period she has lost that pregnancy. We will be reviewing the data and looking at all her behaviours and seeing whether we can find anything out. Next year we would aim to either shift, change and improve everything that we did this year and we hope that we can succeed.”