Giant panda eats shoots - and breeds

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The giant panda, an animal so endangered that it became the very symbol of the conservation movement, has had its best year since records began. A total of 25 have been born in captivity and survived, far more than in any other breeding season and more than twice as many as in 2004.

All but four of these cubs have been reared in China, where decades of research into the mysteries of panda reproduction are beginning to pay substantial rewards, not least because past successes are reaching the age where they can breed. A total of 38 panda females were impregnated in China this year, resulting in 25 births, 21 of which have survived the crucial first few months. Last year, 30 pregnancies produced 12 births, of which only nine survived.

All the Chinese cubs were the result of artificial insemination, for panda mating is a notoriously tentative business. The females are fertile for only two to three days a year, and most captive males show not the slightest interest in sex.

Zhang Zhihe, director of the Giant Panda Breeding Technology Committee in Chengdu, says: "Female pandas are extremely picky about their Mr Right." Hence, insemination is via frozen sperm rather than anything more spontaneous.

But, for scientists at least, hope of panda lust springs eternal, and Mr Zhang has shown his animals videos of mating with the intention of them being educated, if not actually aroused. More promising is his other gambit. "We also raise panda cubs in pairs", he told China Daily, "hoping puppy love will lead to couples."

Humans have no difficulty falling for pandas. The current sensation in Washington DC is a cub born at the Smithsonian National Zoo on 9 July. About 200,000 people voted to choose his name (Tai Shan), and when the zoo said people could apply to visit the new arrival next Saturday, more than 13,000 tickets were sold in just two hours.