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Did Scotland's new pandas mate? Lack of experience hinders pair

In Edinburgh, Scotland, two new pandas from China have been confined together in the hopes that they would breed but so far, despite the zoo's best efforts, they appear disinterested. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

Sweetie, a female giant panda, met her intended breeding mate, Sunshine, at Edinburgh Zoo a day ago.

Sparks flew, there was "vocalization," lots of encouragement and some physical contact, but the prospective lovers did not close the deal due to a lack of experience, said Iain Valentine, director of research and conservation at the zoo.

“Each time the pair met we saw a huge amount of eagerness and attraction between Tian Tian (whose name means Sweetie in Chinese) and Yang Guang (Sunshine)," Valentine said in a statement. "... He mounted her several times, however full mating did not occur. Although both have bred before and have borne cubs with other pandas, they are both still relatively inexperienced."


With time running out for a mating this year, the pair may have to wait until 2013, zoo officials said.

The pandas arrived in the Scottish capital in December from China as part of a 10-year conservation project. They have been munching their way through nearly 110 pounds of bamboo a day since then as they settled into their new home, the zoo said.

Sweetie, 8, has previously given birth to twins. She is described by the zoo as being mischievous and quite fussy with her food, but also a panda of "great character and very smart." Sunshine, also 8, is a "gentle giant," who allows keepers to get very close and loves food and being outside -- even in heavy rain.

The pair had their first close encounter after 9 a.m. Tuesday, when the zoo's "panda cams" were turned off and an indoor enclosure was lifted so they could make one another's acquaintance. "Amidst much excitement, most of it from the pandas, the two met," the zoo said in the statement.

David Moir / Reuters

Yang Guang, a male giant panda rubs himself against the barrier to the enclosure of female giant panda Tian Tian, as he walks in his enclosure at Edinburgh zoo in Scotland April 4, 2012.

There were several other encounters on Tuesday and Wednesday, and they were to see each other later Wednesday. But the chances of achieving a successful mating this year have decreased, the zoo said. Females can only conceive once a year and there is a narrow 36-hour window to mate, which can make reproduction tough.

Experts had decided the time was right after doing hormone testing and observing their behavior over several weeks. Valentine had noted Sweetie going into her pool in late March, which he said she was likely to be doing to cool down as her body prepared for ovulation, and that Sunshine was doing handstands to show "how fit and virile he is."

Visitors had "also spotted them both with their paws up against the grate between the two outdoor enclosures at the same time, popularly dubbed the ‘love tunnel,’" Valentine said.

The only pandas in the United Kingdom have been brought together for the first time, after it was determined that the female was ready to mate. Msnbc.com's Alex Witt reports.

Although they didn't end up mating, the experience for them and the zoo was "immeasurable," the zoo said. 

"We are hugely encouraged by how much the natural sparks flew between the two animals as, like humans, not all male and female pandas are attracted to each other. Both were keen to mate, but their inexperience showed," Valentine said.

The pandas came to Scotland after an agreement was signed in January 2011 between the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and the Chinese Wildlife Conservation Organization. China has historically sent the furry creatures abroad as a sort of cultural ambassador.

Giant pandas are in serious decline due to habitat loss, with fewer than 1,600 remaining in the wild. China's Wolong National Nature Reserve has 60 sites set up to help protect the panda population and increase its numbers in the wild, which has helped, though they are still an endangered species, the zoo said.

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