London - Beneath all that fur, she may have the healthy glow of an expectant mum... but things are seldom that black and white with panda pregnancy.
So Tian Tian, Britain’s only female giant panda, was placed under 24-hour surveillance – and her keepers put on “red alert” – after tests suggested she is expecting.
Any new arrival would be the first panda cub to be born in Britain.
Such are the quirks of the species’ biology, however, that nobody yet knows for certain if she is pregnant, so keepers will be looking out for signs that she is about to go into labour, such as restless behaviour and bleating.
They even have access to CCTV footage via their smartphones and laptops so they can monitor her from their homes to ensure they don’t miss a beat.
If Tian Tian, whose name means Sweetie, is carrying a baby, the pitter-patter of tiny paws could be heard any time in the next two weeks – and it might even be twins.
As excitement grew at perhaps the most anticipated birth since Prince George’s, she seemed to revel in keeping everyone guessing.
She even stuck her tongue out at the crowds at Edinburgh Zoo, where she lives with partner Yang Guang, whose name means Sunshine (he wasn’t revealing much either, just eating bamboo and sleeping a lot as usual).
Visitor Hermione Taylor, 22, from London, said: “She looked so serene, and it looked like she was smiling. Then she stuck her tongue out. It was as if she was saying, ‘I’m giving nothing away’.”
Pandas are notoriously picky about mating and, unfortunately, sparks failed to fly between Tian Tian and Yang Guang, both aged eight, following their arrival in 2011 after a 5 000-mile flight from China, which is loaning them to Britain.
They will stay at the zoo until 2021 and are expected to generate £47-million in tourist income for the Scottish economy.
But under the agreement that brought them there, any cubs are the property of the People’s Republic of China and will be taken to China at the age of two, the age they would naturally leave their mother in the wild.
Tian Tian was artificially inseminated in April using some of Yang Guang’s sperm, and some frozen sperm from Bao Bao, a “genetically important” member of their endangered species who died at Berlin Zoo last year.
Panda foetuses do not start to develop until the final weeks of the five-month gestation period, and at birth the cubs weigh on average only 5oz – 1/900th of their mother’s weight – so there is nothing so simple as a “baby bump” to judge a pregnancy by.
Instead, tests on Tian Tian’s urine revealed a high level of the hormone progesterone. This indicates she is pregnant, a zoo spokesperson said, but it could equally mean she is undergoing a “phantom pregnancy”.
The spokesperson added that even if she is pregnant there is a possibility she may not carry to full term and her body may reject any foetuses.
Her keepers have spotted her displaying nesting behaviour, looking sluggish and sleeping for up to 16 hours a day, all indications she may be pregnant. But no one will know for sure until she starts going into labour.
Ian Valentine, director of giant pandas for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, said: “If indeed she is pregnant, this is an extremely risky time for panda pregnancies.”
Despite the lack of certainty, staff are planning for a birth – incubators have arrived at the zoo and Chinese panda keeper Haiping Hu, from the China Conservation and Research Centre, has flown to Edinburgh to assist. - Daily Mail