Panda mating is big business

National Zoo has trouble getting its couple to consider reproduction

February 03, 2002|By Tom Lasseter | Tom Lasseter,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- Millions of dollars invested. Teams of elite scientists. An international trade agreement. Media coverage that money couldn't buy.

The enterprise is pandas, giant pandas, and now, giant panda sex.

The National Zoo's female panda is 3 1/2 , nearing what some believe to be reproductive age. So talk about a new panda generation has begun, although it is by no means certain that the pandas are listening.

The pandas, Mei Xiang (may-SHONG) and Tian Tian (tee-YEN), are huge in Washington. A live symphony concert welcomed the two, brought from China in 2000 on a 10-year, $10 million privately funded lease. Since then, 2.5 million National Zoo visitors have looked in on the pandas' wooded exhibit, with its air-conditioned caves and mist grove.

The zoo's gift shop runs over with all things panda -- neckties, shot glasses, toaster ovens, pencils, phone cards, change purses and silver-plated spoons. For $18.99, there's a T-shirt featuring glitter-adorned portraits of the pair. Zoo souvenir and refreshment sales increased about $4.5 million last year.

Despite a midwinter chill, about two dozen people stood one afternoon recently watching Mei Xiang (which means "beautiful fragrance" in Chinese) and Tian Tian ("more and more") munch on bamboo. Together, they eat some 80 pounds a day.

The big question

The big question, however, is whether two will become three.

Tian Tian, the male, already has shown signs of eagerness. There was a week last summer in which he "sought out Mei Xiang extensively, and his play with her became more intense," according to a research summary the zoo released.

Attendees at a recent zoo symposium about pandas lost little time getting down to this line of business.

Had the panel, one listener asked with a giggle, heard of efforts to teach pandas to breed by showing them videos of, well, other pandas breeding?

"We've heard `panda porn,'" responded Jo Gayle Howard, a zoo reproductive physiologist. "We've heard Viagra; we've heard it all."

Panda reproduction is nothing to snicker at, zoo director Lucy Spelman said in an interview. There are only about 1,000 of the creatures left worldwide.

All zoos have had trouble getting pandas to breed in captivity. Even in the wild, they have difficulty mating. The National Zoo's previous female panda, Ling Ling, had five cubs, but each of them died within a week.

The difficulty is usually social, not physical, Spelman said.

Male pandas `fearful'

"These male pandas seem to be very fearful of the female pandas and sometimes not recognize them as the same species," she said.

A big part of the problem is that many zoos and research facilities have kept male and female pandas isolated from each other, Spelman said. When thrown in together, the confused male sometimes loses control and assaults his female counterpart.

On the other hand, she said, it's not clear how well pandas such as Mei Xiang and Tian Tian will breed after growing up together.

"If you socialize pandas as youngsters, will they breed as adults or will they think they're brother and sister and not breed?" she asks.

Whatever Mei Xiang and Tian Tian do, they'll be hard-pressed to keep it private. The pair's living space is under constant surveillance by 20 cameras.

On a rotating basis, 30 volunteers monitor the cameras and take notes on the pandas' behavior. A behaviorist team that includes a curator, a research associate, six keepers and a research assistant reviews their findings.

Should Mei Xiang give birth successfully, her offspring won't stay in Washington. Under the zoo's lease agreement, the cubs eventually would be shipped to China.

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