It's time to make a panda baby, mate

Kai Kai trying to get Jia Jia's attention by pawing at a gate at the River Safari's Giant Panda Forest.
Kai Kai trying to get Jia Jia's attention by pawing at a gate at the River Safari's Giant Panda Forest.PHOTO: WILDLIFE RESERVES SINGAPORE

River Safari keepers have fine-tuned methods to trigger mating instincts of Kai Kai and Jia Jia

Singapore's only giant panda family might welcome a new member, if Kai Kai and Jia Jia - the two pandas housed at the River Safari's Giant Panda Forest - mate successfully.

This will be the giant pandas' third attempt at natural mating. Their previous attempts in 2015 and last year proved fruitless, while attempts at artificial insemination also failed.

But the pandas are not the only ones working hard during this year's mating season, which typically occurs from March to May.

Keepers at the River Safari have also fine-tuned their techniques to trigger the pandas' mating instincts, said Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS).

These include moving the pandas - which are housed separately - into each other's exhibits last November to stimulate hormonal changes when the pandas smell the scent of the opposite sex.

The move used to be done two months later, in January, but this time, it was brought forward to increase the chances of breeding.

During an annual check-up - which included collecting urine samples, dental and eye checks, and taking X-ray scans of female Jia Jia's abdomen - veterinarians gave both pandas a clean bill of health.

But giant pandas are notoriously difficult to breed as females have only one reproductive cycle per year and are fertile for just 24 hours.

Family planning for the giant pandas is therefore serious business that goes down to the most intimate details such as ambience and space. The temperature and daylight hours at the 1,500 sq m park - designed to resemble the natural habitat of the pandas in Sichuan, China - have been adjusted to replicate the seasonal transition from winter to spring in their homeland, and trigger the breeding cycle of the pair.

Student Adelle Tai, 17, is excited about visiting the giant pandas during the courting period. She said: "I feel hopeful about such measures as it will prevent their extinction."

While the pandas will be courting in full view of visitors at the park, the actual deed will be done behind closed doors.

Once Jia Jia's oestrogen level drops, the giant pandas will be taken out of their respective exhibits for three days to allow natural mating in the dens, said WRS.

Should this attempt prove unsuccessful, veterinarians have collected Kai Kai's semen via electro-ejaculation for artificial insemination.

Artificial insemination has to be carried out as soon as the female panda's oestrogen level drops after it hits a peak.

Both pandas were loaned to Singapore from China for 10 years starting in 2012, and are the first of their kind to live so close to the Equator.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2017, with the headline 'It's time to make a panda baby, mate'. Print Edition | Subscribe