Edinburgh Zoo said it would continue with its controversial breeding programme after it announced that a female giant panda had lost her baby cub.
There had been mounting excitement in the summer when Royal Zoological Society of Scotland observed hormonal changes in the female Tian Tian – who was artificially inseminated in April - prompting hopes that a first panda could be born in captivity in Britain this autumn.
Director of the project Iain Valentine said the reason for the loss was not known. "Why does this happen? We don't truly understand, but what we do know is this is a species which lives on the edge of a balance between nutritional intake and reproducing,” he said. "We are determined to learn from this experience and if we can improve then we will do,” he added.
News that Tian Tian had miscarried in the latter stages of pregnancy revived bitter memories of earlier failures of Ching Ching and her mate Chia Chia at London Zoo in the 1970s and 80s.
The giant panda is one of the world’s most endangered species with fewer than 1,600 left in the wild. But although there has been growing success in breeding programmes in China and elsewhere animal welfare groups have remained critical of bringing Tian Tian and her mate Yang Guang to Scotland.
John Brady chief executive of Edinburgh-based charity OneKind, which opposes captive breeding programmes, said the failure called into doubt whether to continue with insemination efforts.
“While we are extremely saddened by the possibility of a miscarriage and concerned for the wellbeing of the panda at this time, we need to think about the life a panda cub would have had at the zoo, being unable to forage, feed and roam free as nature intended,” he said.
Edinburgh Zoo is paying the Chinese government £640,000 a year to host the pair which will be on loan until 2021. They arrived in December 2011 following a nine hour flight from Chengdu amid scenes of diplomatic fanfare and talk of a new era of relations between Scotland and China.
Efforts to persuade them to breed naturally appear to have failed despite the creation of a “tunnel of love” separating their respective enclosures. Tian Tian was artificially inseminated with sperm taken from Yang Guang and frozen semen taken from Bao Bao which died in Berlin Zoo last year.
The female panda ovulates only once a year giving a 36 hour window to achieve conception.
However the pandas have become popular attractions at the zoo last year which drew 800,000 visitors.