By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010; C04
After some sad news about the National Zoo's giant pandas in recent weeks, there were happy, if delicate, tidings from their compound Saturday.
Mei Xiang, the National Zoo's female adult giant panda, went into heat about noon, and she and the zoo's adult male, Tian Tian, started mating, much of which was captured on the public panda cam, the zoo said.
The activity signals another early start to Washington's annual panda pregnancy watch, and comes at a momentous time for zoogoers and panda lovers across the region.
Interest is particularly high after officials announced last month that the zoo's beloved 4-year-old panda, Tai Shan, will be leaving for China, a departure expected to occur within the next few weeks. And his parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, are scheduled to be returned to China later this year.
"The fact that this is potentially the last year that we will have Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, everybody feels that, and everybody's thinking about it," zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said Saturday. "We would love to have another cub at the National Zoo."
Giant pandas are native to China, which owns all giant pandas in U.S. zoos. The adults are here on a 10-year loan, which expires this year. Tai Shan, born at the zoo in 2005, was scheduled to be sent to China two years ago. But the Chinese granted an extension.
Female pandas are in heat for about 48 hours, typically in spring. But this is the second consecutive January that Mei Xiang has gone into heat.
In past years, Tian Tian has tried but failed to mate naturally. Tian Tian fathered Tai Shan via artificial insemination. In general, male pandas don't breed well in captivity. Baker-Masson said Saturday that zoo experts would probably let Tian Tian try again, and unless they were 100 percent sure he had succeeded, they would probably turn to insemination, which results in a pregnancy about half the time.
Once a panda is pregnant, the gestation period lasts 90 to 185 days.