IT is an event that will capture the attention of the world – and behind the scenes the work to help giant panda Tian Tian through her pregnancy has already been a global affair.
Scientists and experts from around the world are working round the clock to ensure Tian Tian successfully delivers the first panda cub to be born to Britain.
They include experts from Memphis Zoo, who have used state-of-the-art testing to reduce the chances of a false reading or phantom pregnancy and analysts from Berlin who have used ground-breaking techniques to detect very high hormone levels in Tian Tian’s urine which could be consistent with her having two cubs.
Though zoo bosses are still not 100 per cent sure she is pregnant, her hormone levels are encouraging and staff are on high alert in case she goes into labour.
Panda expert Jeroen Jacob said: “This international collaboration is one of the things that sets the Edinburgh panda project above all of the others. From the beginning, it was clear that Scotland has some amazing scientists working on this.
“Since the last time we had a giant panda in a British zoo, there has been a big improvement in the way zoos work around conservation.
“Getting together experts in different fields from all over the world is so useful for the captive breeding programme.”
From the beginning, experts have been on hand to ensure Tian Tian had the maximum chance of giving birth to a healthy cub.
In anticipation of the brief 36-hour breeding window, hormone samples were taken to Chester Zoo on a daily basis for testing to ensure the two pandas were put together at just the right time.
In April, Tian Tian was artificially inseminated by a team of experts after attempts to mate her with Yang Guang were unsuccessful.
They used sperm from Yang Guang and thawed sperm from a panda called Bao Bao, who died in Berlin Zoo aged 34 last year.
Despite all this work, it is still not certain Tian Tian is pregnant as a pseudo or phantom pregnancy is possible and extremely common in pandas.
But tests developed by Memphis Zoo in the United States and used in this case significantly reduce the chance of a false reading.
With the possibility that Tian Tian could be pregnant growing, a specialist expert has flown in from China to provide further assistance.
Keeper Haiping Hu, from the China Conservation and Research Centre, will be on hand to assist if a cub or cubs are born. The cub would be named 100 days after birth, and would officially be the property of China.
There is a chance that Tian Tian may give birth to panda twins, and the zoo has taken delivery of incubators which will help keep any cubs alive in the vital first days.
Panda incubators are vital for breeding in captivity, as the bears often give birth to twins but the mother will only look after one.
They also protect the bears from infections, and cubs can stay in them for several weeks before being reunited with their mothers.
New-born pandas are unable to regulate their own body temperatures, so the incubators can prevent them from getting too cold.
As speculation grows that Tian Tian could be about to give birth, the enclosure remained closed for a second day yesterday.
A spokeswoman said: “Yang Guang is a bit under the weather and obviously it’s a sensitive time for Tian Tian.
“We’re finding both pandas are currently very active at night and communicating a lot through the grate between their outdoor enclosures.
“Yang Guang in particular has been very energised and we believe, although little research has been done on this, that he is responding to her hormones and chemical cues, leaving him particularly tired during the day.
“At this important time we’re going to give them both the opportunity to be off show and will keep reassessing things on a daily basis.”
The endangered species is restricted to only 20 or so isolated patches of mountain forest in China.
It is believed there are around 16,000 pandas living in the wild.
Cubs weigh between three to five ounces and are small enough fit in the palm of your hand – they are just 1/900th of what their mother weighs and are born blind.
The equivalent for a human would be a 120-pound woman carrying a two-ounce baby.
Apart from marsupials there is no other mammal which has a smaller child relative to its mother than a panda.
Charity say money ‘should go on animals in natural habitat’
The world-famous Born Free Foundation has criticised Edinburgh Zoo and the on-going effortst to breed pandas in captivity.
Will Travers, chief executive of the Born Free Foundation, said the animals were simply being used as a cash cow by the zoo.
“If you look at the record for panda births in total since 1937 there have been 48 and 60 deaths, of those 48 that were born, 17 died in the first ten days.It’s not a successful breeding programme,” he said.
“Will the pandas be reintroduced to the wild? Extremely unlikely. Will the funds raised save panda habitat? A recent expose suggests not.
Breeding a panda in captivity can hardly be considered a success. It is abundantly clear that pandas don’t have any problem reproducing in the wild: generations of pandas over the millennia are testament to that.”
A spokeswoman for Edinburgh Zoo said “in-situ” conservation was always the preferred choice.
She added: “But due to habitat destruction and other threats this is not always feasible as the sole method for preserving a species from extinction.
“In the case of giant panda conservation and research, we are able to bring to the table Scotland’s expertise in animal nutrition, genetics, embryology, immunology and veterinary medicine while also increasing the public’s awareness of the importance of conservation.”
Panda incubators will keep offspring alive
As the world eagerly awaits news of Tian Tian’s pregnancy, incubators will help keep any newborn offspring alive in the first days.
Incubators are vital for breeding in captivity, as the bears often give birth to twins, but the mother will only look after one. They also protect the bears from infections.
Newborn pandas are born unable to regulate their own body temperatures. Incubators prevent them from getting too cold.