Edinburgh zoo has suspended its giant panda breeding programme for at least a year after failing five times to produce cubs through artificial insemination.
The zoo, run by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), said it needed to reassess its strategies before making a final decision on whether to again put its female Tian Tian through artificial insemination.
“We will not attempt to breed our giant pandas this year because we want to further assess the incredibly complex and unpredictable breeding process,” a spokeswoman said.
“This pause, which is supported by our giant panda team and other key specialists, will allow us further time to consider the scientific data, our own experiences and those of colleagues around the world, including the latest thinking on giant panda accommodation.”
The RZSS loaned Tian Tian and Yang Guang from China for 10 years in 2011, for a fee of $1m (£720,000) a year, as part of a £2.6bn trade deal.
Tian Tian had had twins in China in 2009, but the RZSS tried natural mating only once, in 2012. It subsequently used artificial insemination with Yang Guang’s semen and defrosted semen from a bear that had successfully bred at Berlin zoo.
The decision greatly cuts down the time available for a successful birth, assuming the zoo opts to try again.
The agreement with the Chinese also stipulated the zoo would be allowed to keep a cub for two years, which implies it would only be able to attempt breeding again in 2019 and possibly in 2020.
A zoo spokeswoman said: “At the moment it’s too soon to say at this stage about the agreement which may or may not be extended.”
The RZSS has had recent success breeding its polar bears, after Victoria and Arktos produced a cub at its Highland Wildlife Park near Aviemore in January, the first time polar bears have mated successfully in the UK in 25 years.
Edinburgh zoo said it would use the pause to redesign the panda’s enclosure. The RZSS’s statement did not commit the zoo to further breeding efforts, but it said: “We very much hope Tian Tian has a cub in the future and will be thrilled if this happens.”
Libby Anderson, a policy adviser for the Edinburgh-based animal welfare charity OneKind, said it opposed captive breeding programmes and welcomed the zoo’s retreat. “Repeated artificial insemination is against the animals’ interests and will not contribute to the species’ restoration in the wild, because zoo-born cubs will never be released,” she said.