Why pandas are the most frustrating animals out there

Matthew Champion@matthewchampion
Wednesday 09 July 2014 17:00
news

The news that one half of Britain's most famous will they/won't they panda couple had conceived but was not yet pregnant sounds like a typo.

But Tian Tian, care of Edinburgh Zoo but leased from the People's Republic of China, is one of the few animal species that can be a little bit pregnant, as pandas delay implantation after fertilisation.

Tian Tian, meaning sweet in Mandarin, arrived with male Yang Guang, meaning sunshine, in 2011, as pandas graced British shores for the first time in two decades.

Edinburgh Zoo's pandas meeting for the first time. It was meh at first sight

But attempts to make sweet sunshine failed and Tian Tian was artificially inseminated. She also conceived last year but by October zookeepers said she was no longer pregnant.

Births in captivity are rare; pandas are extremely fussy about whom they mate with and conservationists have resorted to showing them panda pornography and even giving the males Viagra.

Pandas don't make things easy for themselves in the wild either: Despite a 16-year period of fertility the females only ovulate for a few days each year and if two cubs are born the mother abandons one as she does not store enough fat or produce enough milk for them both.

The surviving cub, blind and toothless, is incredibly vulnerable after birth but is left alone for hours during the day while the mother goes to feed on bamboo, which makes up 99 per cent of pandas' diets despite the bears being carnivorous. They need to eat at least 40lbs of the grass daily as it is very low on nutrition.

Pandas have effectively 'regressed' to being herbivores, which has been likened to an evolutionary cul-de-sac.

Did we mention that pandas are prone to inbreeding and disease, and that the male leaves the female alone to raise the cub?

What we're left with is an anomalously-vegetarian bear with little interest in procreation or anything in fact that doesn't involve sitting around eating bamboo.

This actually happened

Notable naturalists have called for conservation efforts to be redirected away from the pandas, with Chris Packham and David Bellamy arguing that the funds used to house the bears in zoos would have been much better spent protecting their ever-dwindling habitat; pessimistic estimates say there are 1,800 pandas left in the wild in 20 patches of forest in China's Yangtze Basin region, one of the country's most densely-populated areas.

Arguably, along with tigers, the world's most charismatic megafauna, the panda is the unofficial national symbol of China and the WWF bears its image as its logo. But the sad reality is that its natural habitat is disappearing, unlikely to ever return, leading to calls for nature to run its course and (whisper it) allow the panda to go extinct.

We will find out whether Tian Tian is technically pregnant within 20 to 30 days. A potential birth is pencilled in for late August by the zoo, ruling out a potential 'Midnight's Pandas' situation with the independence referendum not until September 18.

But midnight is approaching for pandas everywhere, whether we hear the pitter patter of panda feet in Scotland or not.

(Pictures: Getty)

Trending