Pandas up close but not too personal on first date

Tian Tian and Yang Guang meet

Tian Tian and Yang Guang meet

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IT wasn’t quite love at first sight as Edinburgh Zoo’s giant pandas were brought together for the first time, but the signs are good for a blossoming romance.

After weeks of speculation, Tian Tian and Yang Guang were finally allowed into the same enclosure as zoo staff watched anxiously to see whether they would mate or fight.

In the end it was a bit of both, as the pair shared a very friendly wrestle on their first encounter, leading to nervous keepers separating them again.

In their next encounter, however, Tian Tian and Yang Guang were much more amorous, with staff saying the male panda had twice made moves.

Later, in two night meetings, after the zoo had closed to the public, the pandas got cuddly but didn’t manage to take that final step.

Zoo staff plan to put the pair together again today for more short meetings as they try to take advantage of Tian Tian’s 36-hour ovulation period.

It emerged that, despite an increasing series of daily tests designed to pinpoint the perfect moment for mating, it was the expert eye of a visiting Chinese vet that prompted keepers to put the pandas together.

The animals were introduced on the advice of Dr Tang Chunxiang, assistant director and chief veterinarian of the Bifengxia Panda Base in China, after hormone tests from Monday revealed Tian Tian still hadn’t ovulated.

Those results arrived with experts at 9pm on Monday, but when Dr Tang saw Tian Tian’s behaviour, he decided that the time was right.

A zoo spokeswoman said: “We all thought that we would be waiting till Wednesday after the tests, but when Dr Tang saw Tian Tian on Tuesday morning he decided if we waited for the next set of test results we may have missed the opportunity.

“She was wandering around and holding her tail, which he said was a good sign she was ready, so we took the decision to put them together.”

The encounter was arranged away from the prying eyes of the public, with just a few select experts on hand. The popular PandaCam, which has allowed people to see inside the enclosure, was also turned off.

The pair first saw each other through the metal gate that separates their enclosures, and it was evident that they were both eager to get closer.

The spokeswoman said: “Tian Tian was calling out to Yang Guang incessantly, with very high-pitched calls, and he very much responded.

“They were both very keen to get to one another, and had their paws up to one another. When the grate went up there was lots of physical contact at the entrance to the love tunnel.

“The signs were very encouraging. They were very receptive to each other.”

Both Tian Tian and Yang Guang have bred before, though not with each other. If she becomes pregnant, Tian Tian’s gestation period could be anything from 85 to 105 days.