There’s growing signs that the female panda at Ähtäri Zoo could soon be ready for mating – a 48 hour window of opportunity that only happens once a year.
Lumi and Pyry came to Finland from China two years ago this week as part of a 15-year rent-a-panda scheme that aims to boost numbers through conservation and breeding.
Head panda keeper Anna Palmroth has been with the bears since before they arrived and says a lot has changed in the the past two years.
“The biggest thing that changed in their behaviour is that they started to become mature and get interested in each other, considering to have some babies. That’s the biggest thing that changed in their personality, otherwise they’re still the same pandas” she tells News Now Finland.
“The opportunity for breeding lasts about 48 hours and of course the pre-signals are starting a couple of weeks before that. We are getting close but not quite yet” says Palmroth.
Keepers regularly check the hormone levels of the female panda Lumi to see when she might be coming into heat but the mild winter in Finland this year has also been a help.
“The climate is quite nice for the pandas, it’s similar to the Sichuan mountains. When spring comes fast after winter it’s good for hormones when the light comes and the temperatures start to rise” Anna Palmroth explains.
The pandas – who respond when Palmroth calls to them using their Chinese names Jin Bao Bao (Lumi) and Hua Bao (Pyry) – are kept well fed and happy at the zoo in Central Finland between Tampere and Seinäjoki.
They’re each given up to 60kg of bamboo every day, and will eat approximately 15-25kg depending on the season and what kind of bamboo is on offer. With some varieties the pandas will only eat leaves, while with other varieties they prefer the stalks.
In the wild, the bamboo is available all year round because although there’s snow cover the ground doesn’t freeze which means pandas don’t hibernate like Finnish brown bears, and because bamboo still grows during the winter there would be enough food to see them through the coldest months without the need to hibernate.
Getting to know Lumi and Pyry
The two Ähtäri Zoo pandas are kept in separate, but adjacent, enclosures. In the wild they would be solitary and only come together for mating, but the zoo says for breeding purposes it’s better if they are already familiar with each other beforehand.
“Pyry is a typical male. He loves to eat, he’s really impatient about the food and he’s a very physical panda” says Anna Palmroth.
“He loves to climb a lot and to check out his enclosure every day, and make scent marks, and make sure no other male panda is about to come to his territory.”
Palmroth says Pyry is the more vocal of the two bears, “but mostly when he’s asking for food or trying to get Lumi to play together” on the other side of their divided enclosure. The pandas can see each other every day if they want, but still live in separate spaces.
Lumi on the other hand is a typical female panda.
“She’s more quiet. She sleeps a lot and loves to play with her toys. She loves all kind of rubber balls and all those toys we give to her – she even sleeps with them!” says Palmroth.
“Lumi is quite a quiet panda, she’s really picky about the keepers, she doesn’t accept just anyone. With Pyry if you’ve got food he’s your friend. But Lumi is more picky” she adds.
If Lumi and Pyry do successfully mate, any panda cubs would be returned to China when they’re between one and three years old.
However there’s no guarantees when it comes to breeding pandas in captivity. While Berlin Zoo had success with twins last September; Edinburgh Zoo has had no luck despite six attempts at artificial insemination of the female.
At Ähtäri Zoo they’re hoping to maximize their chances of success by making sure the pandas know each other as much as possible before meeting face to face during the 48 hour breeding window.
“The pandas are really picky about their companions. Sometimes even if everything looks just fine, the day comes they’re supposed to be together they suddenly won’t get along, maybe one of them says something the other doesn’t like and we’ve lost the game” says Anna Palmroth.
“One of the biggest things that we’ve have learned these past two years is that you really need to make sure they get to know each other before the breeding season, at least a few weeks before. There we can see a lot of signs if they like each other or not” she adds.
The work being done in Ähtäri Zoo supports conservation efforts in China, where some captive-born cubs have already been released back into the wild. Although Palmroth says it’s not purely a numbers game about breeding more pandas, it’s also about deepening and strengthening the pandas’ genetic pool.
“I always say our pandas are like the ambassadors of conservation and protecting wildlife and nature” says Palmroth.
“The kids love them, they have a good influence to our next generation to make sure they’re doing things better than we have done now. That’s my hope.”