'Mission impossible' for Japan stud panda
TOKYO, Japan -- Two countries, high hopes and one giant panda named Ling Ling.
Japan's "middle-aged stud" panda returns to Mexico City for what some are calling his "mission impossible" to mate with up to three female pandas.
A failed first attempt has not disheartened zookeepers, who this time hope Japan's most famous furry 15-year-old, if given more time to settle in, will mate naturally with one of his female hosts.
With between 700 and 1,000 giant pandas surviving in the wild, Ling Ling's sex efforts are capturing the world's imagination as part of the global effort to boost the population of this endangered animal peculiar to China.
At 15, this may be Ling Ling's last opportunity to mate and father a cub, since domestic Japanese hopes were dashed with the death of his long-term companion and mate Tong Tong, who died of cancer last year.
If the mating is successful, Ling Ling, the only remaining giant panda at Ueno Zoo in Tokyo will have a Japanese heir apparent.
Under the agreement between the two zoos, Ling Ling's first offspring will be sent to the Tokyo zoo, a second will stay in Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico.
Performance pressure and interest in Ling Ling's sexual exploits has never been greater.
Its the season
The mating season for female pandas comes once a year over a period of two months, which in Mexico is in March and April.
By shipping Ling Ling early, zookeepers hope that the lengthier matchmaking period will allow him to acclimatize to the environment in Mexico, choose a mate and do it naturally.
Last time they had to resort to artificial insemination when the male panda, himself conceived by the same process, did not hit it off with any of the Mexican zoo's three pandas.
Veterinarians took fresh semen from Ling Ling in April and inseminated the females, Xin-Xin, Shuan-Shuan and Xiu-Hua.
Zookeepers were confident at least one of the pandas would become pregnant and early tests suggested two of them were carrying the 15-year-old Ling Ling's offspring, but none of them carried the baby full term.
"Ling Ling has to work hard to meet the zoo's and (our) visitors' expectation of him. We are all looking so much forward to the baby panda's birth. We need everyone's support in this too," Ueno Zoo director Hiroshi Sugaya told Reuters.
Ling Ling was born at Beijing Zoo, China and given to Ueno Zoo, Tokyo in 1992 in an exchange for a Japan-born panda to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral ties.
Mexican breeding success
The breeding program, a joint five-year project with their Mexican counterparts, carries high hopes for Japan's small and dwindling panda population of six.
Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico has had one of the most successful, and natural, panda-breeding programs outside China, in total eight giant pandas have been conceived in the zoo since 1975.
There are various theories about its success; one attribute is Mexico City's 7,300 foot (2,225 meter) altitude, which is close to that of the pandas' native habitat in Sichuan, China.
Yet the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) opposes the breeding of pandas in captivity.
It says the best way to protect this endangered species is to preserve its natural habitat in the mountains of China, mainly in Sichuan province -- unfortunately one of the country's most populous.
Poaching and destruction of the panda's mountain forest homes and bamboo supplies it needs to survive are the major causes for its decline, even after Beijing has stepped up efforts in protecting the panda and its habitat.
With low rates of reproduction even in the wild, zookeepers argue that artificial breeding programs are crucial to their survival.
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