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 on: Aug 25, 2015, 06:02 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Government permission to use banned pesticides face legal challenge

Temporary approval for two of the three neonicotinoid pesticides linked to decline in bees and banned by the EU is to be challenged in the high court

Emma Howard
Tuesday 25 August 2015 12.02 BST

A government decision to permit the use of banned pesticides linked to declining bee populations is to be challenged in the high court by the environmental charity Friends of the Earth (FOE).

The use of three neonicotinoid pesticides is currently illegal under a European Union law, which is due to be reviewed at the end of the year.

Last month the UK government decided to make two of the pesticides available for 120 days on about 5% of England’s oil seed rape crop on farms in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.

It followed an “emergency application” by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), saying that the product is needed for the autumn season. But FOE said they believe the government’s decision is “unnecessary, unlawful and harmful” and does not meet the criteria set down by the EU for emergency authorisation.

FOE bees campaigner Dave Timms said: “The government should be listening to the science and championing the long-term interests of our threatened bees. The distribution of these seeds should now be halted until the courts can decide whether their use is lawful.”

In 2013, following a mass mobilisation of 3 million people across Europe, the EU introduced legislation to restrict the use of three neonicotinoids pesticides: imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiametoxam. It states that exceptions can be made.

The EU ruling followed risk assessments by the European Food Safety Authority that identified that neonicotinoids are having an “acute effect” on bees. Experts have linked the loss of honeybees to a potential food security catastrophe and said that it would cost the UK £1.8bn to replace the pollination done by bees.

The move by the environmental NGO came the day after the publication of a landmark 11-year study that revealed a correlation between the decline of honeybee colonies across England and Wales and the use of the third banned neonicotinoid imidacloprid, which has not been authorised for use by the government.

“The scientific case that these pesticides harm bees and other pollinators is absolutely overwhelming, which is why the ban should be extended to cover all uses. Bees are absolutely crucial pollinators across a huge range of crops and a vital part of our biodiversity. It would also diminish us as people if we allowed the decline of a much loved part of our gardens and countryside,” Timms told the Guardian.

Farmers say the product is needed to protect certified seeds from devastation by the cabbage stem flea beetle and that those who use it will be asked to take part in scientific research to measure its impact on their crops.

When the government approved the pesticide use last month, Guy Smith, vice-president of the NFU said: “The NFU has worked relentlessly to submit a robust application and we’re glad to finally see a positive result. However, we know that this isn’t enough – flea beetle threat is a widespread problem on a national scale and the extremely limited nature of this authorisation is unfortunately not going to help the vast majority of farmers in need of the protection.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The EU commission introduced precautionary restrictions on neonicotinoids from December 2013, which the UK has fully implemented. The Government makes decisions on pesticides based on the recommendations of senior scientists and independent experts who have looked at the best available scientific evidence. It would not be appropriate for us to comment further on ongoing legal proceedings.”

Documents seen by the Guardian last month revealed that the government refused to publish the minutes of meetings with their own pesticide advisers on time, after they refused an application by the NFU.

 on: Aug 25, 2015, 06:00 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Tropical forests totalling size of India at risk of being cleared, study warns

Washington-based Center for Global Development predicts 289m hectares (714m acres) of tropical forests will be felled by 2050 based on current trends

Reuters in Toronto
Tuesday 25 August 2015 04.32 BST

Tropical forests covering an area nearly the size of India are set to be destroyed in the next 35 years, a faster rate of deforestation than previously thought, a study warned on Monday.

The Washington-based Center for Global Development, using satellite imagery and data from 100 countries, predicted 289m hectares (714m acres) of tropical forests would be felled by 2050, with dangerous implications for accelerating climate change, the study said.

Save rainforests or they will worsen climate change, warns ex-WWF chief..Read more:

If current trends continued tropical deforestation would add 169bn tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by 2050, the equivalent of running 44,000 coal-fired power plants for a year, the study’s lead author told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Reducing tropical deforestation is a cheap way to fight climate change,” said environmental economist Jonah Busch. He recommended taxing carbon emissions to push countries to protect their forests.

UN climate change experts have estimated the world can burn no more than 1tn tonnes of carbon in order to keep global temperature rises below two degrees – the maximum possible increase to avert catastrophic climate change.

If trends continued the amount of carbon burned as a result of clearing tropical forests was equal to roughly one-sixth of the entire global carbon dioxide allotment, Busch said.

“The biggest driver of tropical deforestation by far is industrial agriculture to produce globally traded commodities including soy and palm oil.”

The study predicted the rate of deforestation would climb through 2020 and 2030 and accelerate around the year 2040 if changes were not made.

There were some success stories where countries reduced tropical deforestation without compromising economic growth or food production, the study said. Brazil decreased deforestation in the Amazon rainforest by 80% over a decade through the use of satellite monitoring and increased law enforcement, even as cattle and soy production rose.

 on: Aug 25, 2015, 05:57 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Great Barrier Reef species more at risk from climate change, says study

Tropical species with smaller geographical ranges are more likely to die out in a warming climate than those that can adapt by ‘invading’ new regions

Joshua Robertson
Monday 24 August 2015 21.23 BST

Species native to the Great Barrier Reef are more likely to face extinction through climate change than marine life elsewhere that can adapt by “invading” new regions, according to new research.

The largest study to date on the impacts of climate change on marine biodiversity found that many species would cope by finding new waters.

However, tropical species with narrower ranges were more likely to die out in a rapidly warming climate, the international research team found.

And the unknown effects of “invaders” encroaching on “natives” would pose “unprecedented challenges” for conservation, they warned.

Planting coral could save Great Barrier Reef from climate change, say scientists..Read more:

One of the researchers, John Pandolfini from University of Queensland’s ARC centre of excellence for coral reef studies, said the richness of marine biodiversity would change markedly and vary considerably region to region.

He said the study of almost 13,000 species “gave us hope that that species have the potential to track and follow changing climates but it also gave us cause for concern, particularly in the tropics, where strong biodiversity losses were predicted”.

“This is especially worrying, and highly germane to Australia’s coral reefs, because complementary studies have shown high levels of extinction risk in tropical biotas [local marine populations], where localised human impacts as well as climate change have resulted in substantial degradation,” Pandolfini said.

The modeling relied on blending “climate velocity trajectories” – a measurement which combined the rate and direction of shifting ocean temperatures over time – with information about what temperatures and habitats species can tolerate.

CSIRO professor Elvira Poloczanska said the study showed that climate change would drive a new sameness in marine life populations across the world.

“Ecological communities which are currently distinct, will become more similar to each other in many regions by the end of the century,” Poloczanska said.

University of the Sunshine Coast researcher David Schoeman said the model suggested there was still time to prevent major climate-driven extinctions outside the tropics.

“Results under a scenario in which we start actively mitigating climate change over the next few decades indicates substantially fewer extinctions than results from a business-as-usual scenario,” Schoeman said.

However, the prospect of new blends of marine life populations through climate-driven migration was “possibly more worrying”.

“We have little idea of how these new combinations of species in ocean systems around the world will affect ecosystem services, like fisheries,” he said.

“We should be prioritising ecological research aimed specifically at addressing this question.”

Pandolfi said the broad geographic connections of climate change effects shown by the study underlined the need for international cooperation on conservation.

Climate Velocity and the Future of Global Redistribution of Marine Biodiversity is published in Nature Climate Change.

 on: Aug 25, 2015, 05:55 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Barack Obama singles out Koch brothers over fossil fuel lobbying

US president says conservative politicians and businesspeople are ‘standing in the way of the future’ by opposing his clean energy measures

Joanna Walters in San Francisco
Tuesday 25 August 2015 04.24 BST

Barack Obama has railed against US political and business figures who oppose the expansion of wind and solar power in a speech where he singled out the influential Koch brothers for criticism.

Accusing opponents of his energy policies of “wanting to protect an outdated status quo” based on fossil fuels, he warned them away from “standing in the way of the future” and his efforts to combat climate change.

Obama delivered the closing address at the eighth National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas, co-sponsored by Senator Harry Reid of Nevada. The senate minority leader had 24 hours earlier given a forceful endorsement of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and as the president took the podium on Monday he acknowledged Reid’s boost to his efforts to prevent Congress from blocking the international pact.

Obama said: “I want to thank him for his statement over the weekend in support of a deal that makes sure Iran does not get a nuclear weapon. The deal is a historic diplomatic breakthrough, the best of American foreign policy.”

The president embarked on a spirited defense of his administration’s policy to back the fast-expanding renewable energy industry in the US – launched as part of a spending program that was originally aimed at pulling the country out of the recession that followed the financial crisis of 2008 – and more recent moves to “reduce the dangerous emissions that contribute to climate change”.

Obama praised the solar panel industry, where he said prices for panels had fallen by 10% in the US since 2008 while installations had risen 30%, while “every three minutes another business in America goes solar” and thousands of jobs were being created.

“Now is not the time to pull back from these investments. Many Republicans want to take from these successful clean energy programs,” he warned.

Obama said that in some cases renewable energy was becoming cheaper than conventional energy and it was “impossible to overstate what that means”.

He gave shout-outs specifically to Walmart, Google, Apple and Costco – companies he said were investing in renewable energy to run their businesses. “That should give us a big jolt of hope,” he said.

He also argued that ordinary consumers who disagreed with him on fundamental issues should look at solar and wind energy as making financial sense. “You do not have to share my passion for solving climate change to like renewable energy. People are doing it not because of tree huggers – even though trees are important – but because they are cost-cutters,” he said.

This “big shift” was making “fossil fuel interests pretty nervous, to the point where they are trying to fight renewable energy”.

“I’m getting resistance from some fossil fuel interests who want to protect the outdated status quo. When you start seeing massive lobbying efforts backed by fossil fuel interests or conservative thinktanks or the Koch brothers, pushing for new laws to roll back renewable energy standards or prevent new clean energy businesses from succeeding, that’s a problem,” he said.

The Koch brothers are Charles and David Koch, the business siblings who control Koch Industries, a multinational conglomerate based in Kansas with vast holdings in oil, chemicals and a host of other traditional industries. They actively fund Republican and conservative causes that oppose expanding the government’s role in healthcare and combating climate change, particularly through taxation and tighter regulation of power plant emissions.

“That’s not the American way, that’s not progress, that’s not innovation. That’s trying to protect the old ways of doing business and standing in the way of the future,” Obama continued.

He accused such opponents “who tout themselves as champions of the free market” and “go crazy” at any talk of the government providing healthcare for people without insurance of trying to “choke off consumer choice”, as the summit audience applauded.

He predicted his opponents would only get louder as the clean energy industry continued to grow and win new customers. But he insisted they were going in the wrong direction. “It’s about the past versus the future. And America believes in the future,” he said.

Looking relaxed after his recent family holiday, link the president said it was good to be “back on the road” to talk about energy issues after “recharging my own batteries, so to speak”.

 on: Aug 25, 2015, 05:48 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
I spy the bee-eater

Brampton, Cumbria Suddenly, there it was, in elegant outline, its feathers painted with Japanese brush strokes in verdigris, amber, slate-blue, honey

Susie White
Aug 25 2015

It felt like an agricultural show. Lines of cars parked in a field and a blue canopy were definitely an event. Laminated signs read “Bee-eaters, this way”. We followed a footpath that skirted Low Gelt sand quarry, gorse pods snapping open in the hot evening air. On the long walk in, we talked to a steel worker from Redcar, his first time travelling to see a rare breeding bird – a bird from southern Europe that fires the imagination with its rainbow colours.

The RSPB had set up a second open-sided tent on the rim of the quarry. Backed by bracken and birch saplings, a large gathering waited, their binoculars and scopes trained across a deep bowl to the far side. There was hushed chatter like a congregation waiting for a service to begin. Pink sand was sculpted into crags, bluffs and Saharan swirls, and tracks looped across the bottom where a machine had recently been working.

Through the scope the heat shimmered, making the nest hole seem to wobble across the distance. A pair of bee-eaters had burrowed deep into the cliff, enjoying 24-hour nest protection since 10 June. Sudden feeding activity at the end of July showed that their eggs had hatched. The adults were bringing in the variety of insects needed for healthy chicks: bees, butterflies, a banded demoiselle.

But I was told that a local beekeeper was happy with their visits. Bee-eaters take the weak, exhausted bees, keeping the hives in good condition. Coming in with insects several times an hour, the male was aided by another male, possibly last year’s offspring. A second hole in the cliff made a roost hole for this helper, and nearby, the multi-story nests of gregarious sand martins.

Dust blew off the ridges and bands of coloured sand as we waited. A partridge stood on the far edge, a hobby flew across the field behind. Expectation built. Suddenly, there it was; a bee-eater in elegant outline on a fence post, its feathers painted with Japanese brush strokes in verdigris, amber, slate-blue, honey. A flurry of exotic wings, a curved nib of a beak, and it was gone again.

 on: Aug 25, 2015, 05:45 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Sea Shepherd anti-whaling ship Bob Barker refused entry to Faroe Islands

Territory says it banned activist group’s entry after it had ‘deliberately attempted to disrupt the legal and regulated activity of driving and killing pilot whales’

Agence France-Presse
Tuesday 25 August 2015 03.28 BST

Denmark’s autonomous Faroe Islands announced on Monday that they had refused entry to a ship carrying 21 activists from the militant conservation group Sea Shepherd who were trying to disrupt traditional whale hunts.

The territory’s government said in a statement that it had barred the ship, the Bob Barker, “with a basis in immigration legislation and in the interests of maintaining law and order”.

“In recent weeks, anti-whaling activists representing the animal rights group Sea Shepherd have deliberately attempted to disrupt the legal and regulated activity of driving and killing pilot whales for food in the Faroe Islands, leading to the arrest, prosecution and expulsion from the Faroe Islands of a number of these activists,” the statement added.

Tensions have been high between those who defend the traditional whale hunt, and animal rights activists who say the practice causes unnecessary bloodshed.

Scottish town cuts twinned link to Faroe Islands over whale killings..Read more:

During the hunt, the whales are led to a bay or the mouth of a fjord before being killed by hand.

The Faroe Islands say that the number of animals killed is small compared with the population. About 800 whales are killed per year out of a population of more than 750,000.

Residents have traditionally eaten the whale meat, but more recently health authorities have advised to eat it only once a month, and for pregnant women to avoid it all together, because of the high concentration of heavy metals and dioxins.

On 7 August, five Sea Shepherd activists were found guilty of disrupting the hunt.

The court handed down sentences ranging from a fine of 5,000 kroner (€670, US$735) or eight days in prison, to 35,000 kroner or 14 days in prison. The Sea Shepherd group was also fined 75,000 kroner, and the activists deported.

Contacted by AFP, the government and the police did not give the nationalities of the activists on the Bob Barker.

No Sea Shepherd spokesperson was available for comment on Monday.

 on: Aug 25, 2015, 05:41 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Edinburgh zoo says giant panda Tian Tian lost cub during pregnancy

Giant panda had been expected to give birth last week, but experts now suspect she absorbed the foetus into the womb

Severin Carrell and Sam Knight
Tuesday 25 August 2015 10.54 BST

Edinburgh zoo has said that its giant panda Tian Tian has again lost a cub during pregnancy, despite growing optimism in recent weeks that the zoo’s midwifery would finally pay off.

Staff at the zoo had been convinced that Tian Tian’s prospects were greater than ever this year after her hormone readings and behaviour showed her pregnancy was going to plan, following her artificial insemination with semen from her mate, Yang Guang, in March.

Tian Tian was due to give birth during a four-day window last week, but the zoo’s experts now suspect she absorbed the foetus into the womb in the final stages of her pregnancy – repeating the events of the last two years, when cubs have been lost at a very late stage.

Iain Valentine, director of the zoo’s giant pandas project, who has given the Guardian exclusive access to the panda breeding programme, said it was too early to be certain what had gone wrong with the birth.

Tian Tian had shown the classic signs of going into labour on Tuesday 18 August, with the zoo carrying out the most comprehensive series of hormone tests yet done on a female giant panda, but by Thursday the evidence she was pregnant had faded. The zoo is now planning a series of tests and reviews of the data to learn further lessons.

“We will now spend a lot of time looking at it all,” Valentine said. “This has been a very different year. There has been a step change, another step. How many more steps will we need to take? I don’t know, and of course it is biology, so it’s complicated. Producing a panda cub is icing on the cake, but we are working with an amazing species.”

It is the fourth attempt by Edinburgh zoo to produce a cub from the pair since they arrived on loan from the Chinese government as part of a £2.6bn UK trade deal in December 2011. Their procession from the airport was witnessed by the then deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon and Michael Moore, then Scottish secretary.

Alison MacLean, the pandas’ head keeper, told the Guardian her team and other executives had been extremely optimistic that they had perfected their techniques this year.

“We thought this was definitely going to be our year,” she said. “We were kind of skipping about the section trying not to grin from ear to ear, thinking this was it, and any minute it was going to go to full-blown labour,” she said.

Her keepers are now extremely despondent, MacLean admitted. “It does tug at the heart. It’s hugely sad, and not just because we wanted it for us. I wanted it for her, [but] our priority right now is that she is all right, and we will pick ourselves up and go again. [It’s] an absolutely fantastic job, it’s probably the greatest job in the world, but it ain’t easy.”

Chris West, the zoo’s chief executive, who came to Edinburgh from Adelaide zoo in Australia which is also home to giant pandas, said: “Tian Tian is still showing behaviour of a pregnant panda, being sleepy and off her food, but we now must assume she has resorbed her pregnancy in late term.

“It is believed that resorption is a common occurrence in giant pandas, as it is in other species, and may well be the true explanation behind many so-called ‘fake’ pregnancies.”

The zoo had been hoping for a surge in visitors and worldwide attention. Tian Tian and Yuang Guan are already its biggest attraction, greatly helping the zoo recover from a financial crisis, but panda cubs would have seen visitor numbers surge again had they gone on public show this winter.

Tian Tian was chosen for Edinburgh because she has successfully produced twin cubs before. The zoo’s disappointment was deepened by news over the weekend that Mei Xiang, a giant panda at Washington National zoo, had unexpectedly given birth to twins. Its staff had not even been aware she was pregnant. She already has two surviving cubs.

Early on Monday, keepers at Zoo Negara in Malaysia announced their panda Liang Liang had also given birth, to a female cub, only a year after arriving there. There have been other giant panda cubs born at other zoos and conservation centres this year, including three sets of twins in five days at a Chinese research centre in Sichuan province, and pregnant pandas in zoos in Memphis, Tennessee and Hong Kong.

“2015 isn’t our year, we celebrate Washington and Malaysia’s success,” Valentine said. “We keep our fingers crossed for Memphis and for Hong Kong, the small little panda club we are part of, we celebrate and commiserate together.”

Edinburgh zoo’s three previous attempts have ended in disappointment. Tian Tian, whose name translates as Sweetie, successfully conceived in 2013 after she was artificially inseminated, but she then resorbed the foetus at a late stage of her pregnancy. She failed to conceive in 2012, and a successful conception last year also ended in failure when she failed to carry to full term.

Edinburgh’s pandas have played a key role in helping the zoo’s finances and reputation recover after it suffered £1.5m losses, a steep fall in visitor numbers and a series of damaging staffing crises five years ago.

The pandas’ arrival saw a surge in visitor numbers, peaking at 810,000 – up 51% – in their first year at the zoo. Heavy merchandising of the pandas boosted the zoo’s finances, with its income jumping by more than £5m to nearly £15m.

Although visitor numbers fell last year by 12% to nearly 672,000, they dropped less significantly than forecast and far less sharply than at other zoos with pandas, according to the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s latest accounts.


Everything you always wanted to know about panda sex (but were afraid to ask)

After years of disappointment, staff at Edinburgh zoo hoped that this month would bring the birth of a baby panda. But is captive breeding really the way to save the species?

Sam Knight
Tuesday 25 August 2015 07.00 BST

At about 5pm on 25 March, a cold, wet Wednesday earlier this year, Tian Tian, the female giant panda at Edinburgh zoo, stirred from the wooden platform in her outdoor enclosure and began to bleat. Tian Tian, who was born in Beijing zoo in 2003, has proved a terrific hit with visitors since she arrived in Britain with the zoo’s male panda, Yang Guang, in December 2011. Yang Guang, whose name means “Sunshine”, might be a larger and, to all appearances, more affable creature, but Tian Tian (“Sweetie”) is a panda with more edge, more wit and more dash.

These are unusual qualities. Pandas are vegetarian bears with slow metabolisms. They subsist almost entirely on bamboo, which they digest poorly. They do everything they can to avoid unnecessary exertion. If you give Yang Guang a ball, he will most likely see if he can eat it, then let it go. Tian Tian, on the other hand, has been known to skip after balls and do forward rolls. Sometimes she hangs from the bars on the top of her indoor den – a pose that her handlers call “ninja panda” – just for the hell of it. She is not all nice. Tian Tian has bullied keepers off the job, and sometimes takes sly swipes with her enormous claws at passing vets. “She has got her own mind, most definitely,” said Alison Maclean, the chief panda keeper at Edinburgh zoo, who seems to love her deeply for precisely this reason. “You have to be very, very careful around her.”

That afternoon, as they prepared to leave for the day, the panda team at the zoo was watching Tian Tian especially closely. When she stood up and wandered over to a pale green grate that separates her enclosure from Yang Guang’s, Maclean, who was sitting in her office a few hundred yards away, followed her on one of 16 cameras that monitor the bears day and night. Late March is right in the middle of the short, fragile and confusing period that is the panda breeding season. Female pandas ovulate just once a year. The optimum window for them to mate – “the drop zone” in zoo parlance – is about 24 hours long. Depending on the vagaries of climate, diet and bear, the build-up to this moment can be conspicuous and last for weeks, or it can arrive suddenly, with no warning at all. “The signs can be very subtle,” Simon Girling, Edinburgh zoo’s head vet, told me. “We are always worried that we are going to miss the window.”

On the screen, Maclean watched Tian Tian approach the grate and continue her calls. Having evolved to lead solitary lives, pandas are kept in separate enclosures in zoos, to prevent them from killing one another. The only exception to this is the breeding season, when the bears are invited to communicate and are ultimately, according to the euphemism, “introduced”. Seeing Tian Tian through the bars, Yang Guang, who had spent the afternoon sitting on top of a cave, eating, called back. “We thought, this was quite good,” said Maclean, “quite interactive, quite nice.”

Maclean was cautious, though. Since the pandas’ arrival, the team at Edinburgh zoo had already tried three times to breed the bears – with considerable fanfare and public attention – and each attempt had ended in disappointment. After a thoroughgoing review of these attempts in late 2014, this year’s season carried with it a sense of added pressure. But the keepers had also come up with one or two new tricks. A few weeks earlier, Maclean had daubed urine from Long Hui, an impressive male panda kept at Schönbrunn zoo, in Vienna, all over Yang Guang and Tian Tian’s enclosures, in order to spice the air with competition and possibility. “She spent a lot of time sniffing and seeing what was going on,” said Maclean. “He came out and was just like, ‘Whoa!’ He was all over the place.”

As in previous years, however, most of the keepers’ match-making work took the form of minute monitoring – of bamboo consumption, behaviour, daily photographs of Tian Tian’s vulva – to ensure everyone was primed for the big moment. An important part of this surveillance is the analysis of hormones in Tian Tian’s urine. From mid-March onwards, Maclean and her team try to collect up to four samples a day, but this is a challenge. Females coming into heat have evolved to pee in ponds and streams, to alert potential mates, and although Tian Tian has been trained to urinate on command, she frequently refuses to comply. “Quite often she is like, ‘I’m holding on to this,’” said Maclean. Keepers scurry in with syringes to collect precious drops from the ground when she is not looking.

The urine samples go by bus or taxi to Forbes Howie, an endocrinologist at Edinburgh University, but their ultimate interpretation is the domain of Iain Valentine, the director of the panda project at Edinburgh zoo. A tall, toothy, loping man, Valentine is Edinburgh’s maverick and its schemer, the person who first dreamed of bringing pandas to Scotland – the most northerly place the animals have ever been known to live – about a decade ago. Since then, he has been both evangelist and architect of the zoo’s efforts to produce the UK’s first-ever panda cub. Every spring, Valentine, who is 51 and an expert on the capercaillie, a large woodland grouse, spends weeks puzzling over fluctuating levels of panda oestrogen and progesterone, as well as various other proteins, looking for telltale signs of impending ovulation – “double peaks” and “big falls” – and hankering for the next set of results from the lab.

By the afternoon of 25 March, Valentine was convinced that Tian Tian had reached “crossover” – a threshold when her oestrogen levels overtake those of progesterone – 12 days earlier, and that she was due to ovulate in two or three days’ time. A measure of warning is vital. Because the pandas are so rare, and the opportunities to breed them are so fleeting, it is standard practice in zoos to artificially inseminate females, as well as to attempt to mate them naturally. For scientific back-up and political cover (all pandas are officially on loan from the Chinese government), Valentine already had two experts from the CCRCGP – China’s main panda research facility – installed in the Holiday Inn next door to the zoo, and he had a team of reproductive biologists from Germany booked on flights the following day to prepare for the artificial insemination. The Germans, led by Prof Thomas Hildebrandt from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, had artificially inseminated Tian Tian in the two previous years.

Valentine watched Tian Tian through the cameras. In a urine sample taken that morning at 8.30am, he had noted a small decrease in her oestrogen, but thought little of it. The team took a second sample at 9.50am, but decided not to send it, and to wait instead for those results to come in with the afternoon sample, which was taken at 2.30pm. “We thought nothing much was going to happen,” said Valentine. With no new data expected until later in the evening, and quietly encouraged by the images of Tian Tian and Yang Guang bleating through the grate, the panda team went home.

* * *

Valentine lives in Newburgh, a village on the banks of the river Tay, about an hour north of the zoo. He was preparing supper when he received an excited message from Howie, the endocrinologist, at 7.08pm. “Results up,” it said. “Yinks!” The tests showed that Tian Tian’s oestrogen levels had dropped suddenly in the short interval between her two samples that morning. She had almost certainly ovulated, and that was now nearly 12 hours ago. Tian Tian was well into the drop zone. “Sneaky minx,” Valentine texted back. The clock was ticking, and his mind began to race with decisions and difficulties – all the people he had to phone and bring together. “The Chinese are in the Holiday Inn. The vets are at home. The keepers are at home,” he told himself. “The Berlin team is in Berlin.”

The first person he called was Zhaoyuan Li, a Chinese field biologist based in Scotland who has acted as the zoo’s interpreter and liaison with Chinese scientists and bureaucrats since 2008. Li was in the hotel with the two Chinese scientists, and Valentine wanted their take on the test results. Then he rang Girling, the head vet. Maclean got a call from one of her keepers while she was in the supermarket. She put her shopping back on the shelves and ran out to her car. The Germans tried to change their flights.
the director of the panda project at Edinburgh zoo.

The first captive-bred giant panda, Ming Ming, was born in Beijing zoo on 9 September 1963. The first successful artificial insemination was carried out in 1978. Even so, almost 40 years later, breeding pandas in zoos remains a business of conflicting opinions, uncooperative bears, and near-hysterical levels of public and press interest, and occasional disaster. (At London zoo in the early 1990s, keepers had to spray their bears with fire extinguishers after one bit the other during an introduction. In 2010, Xing Xing, a 14-year-old male on loan to Japan, died after a routine electro-ejaculation.) Only a handful of zoos outside China have managed it successfully. The key decision facing Valentine and the team that night was whether they had to attempt an artificial insemination, or even natural mating, in the next few hours – or if they could safely wait until the following day. Valentine knew that American teams often wait more than 24 hours after ovulation before inseminating pandas, but in Europe, the rule of thumb is to do it as soon as possible. The pandas were not giving any clues. Logging in to the cameras from home, Maclean saw that Yang Guang was sound asleep.

Girling, the vet, lives a short distance away from Valentine, and the two men decided to drive to Edinburgh to meet the Chinese vets. Before they left, they told the rest of the team to assemble at the zoo. During the drive, Girling and Valentine were apprehensive. They became increasingly convinced that they should inseminate Tian Tian that night. It was too risky to attempt a natural introduction, in case Tian Tian got injured, and it did not look as if the Germans could get there quickly enough. “If we were going to do this, we were going to have to do it ourselves,” Girling said. By the time they reached the Holiday Inn, at about 10.30pm, the Chinese experts had arrived at the same conclusion.

The team – keepers, vets and the zoo’s head of animals, Darren McGarry – gathered in a room at the animal collections department towards midnight. There were about a dozen people. Almost all of them had been involved in the previous inseminations of Tian Tian and had been preparing for this moment for several months. There were not enough people for both bears to be sedated (most zoos prefer to use fresh semen, which they coax from the sedated male panda using an anal probe) so Girling, who had not inseminated a panda before, would use a frozen sample from February 2014. The vet took a gas-powered pistol loaded with anaesthetic and walked down the hill to the enclosure.

Maclean was with Tian Tian when she went under. “The last person she sees when she goes off to sleep is me,” she said. The night was cold. It took four people to lift the panda on to a stretcher, and then on to a set of hay bales that acted as an operating table. A heated blanket kept her warm. Next door, in a small kitchen, Valentine and the Chinese scientists defrosted straws of Yang Guang’s semen and examined them under a microscope. The only delay came when there was a slight disagreement – exacerbated by translation problems – over whether Tian Tian should be inseminated in her vagina or her uterus.

In the end, Girling injected two catheter-fulls of Yang Guang’s semen directly into her womb. Tian Tian woke up alone in her cage, with Maclean on the other side of the bars. At around 5am, Girling and Valentine got in the car to drive home. The adrenaline of the night had given way to fatigue. Girling was relieved, but Valentine remained unsettled. He has described producing a cub as “the icing on the cake” for Edinburgh’s panda project, but in truth it is much more than that.

A baby panda in Scotland would be proof of the bears’ wellbeing, a measurable contribution to the saving of the giant panda and the biggest event in the zoo’s 116-year history. It would also be an immense personal validation of Valentine’s work as a scientist and a conservationist. And that night, the insemination of Tian Tian had the feel of a rushed job. “This was the first year where, if I am being honest, I had a question mark,” he told me. In the dark Scottish dawn, it began to snow.


Pandas are the oldest extant bear. A set of fossilised cheek teeth found in southern China in the 1980s suggests that the species diverged from the main Ursus family around 7m years ago. They used to roam across east Asia: panda fossils have been found as far north as Beijing and as far south as Burma. It was probably climatic changes, and the advance of humankind, that drove the bears, with their unusual sixth digit (the panda thumb) and piebald markings, into the steep and inaccessible mountains of south-west China.

There they embarked on one of biology’s great love stories: of carnivore and plant. Lots of things about pandas – their genes and digestive systems, for example – suggest that they should eat meat, but instead they have a diet that is 99% bamboo. Indeed, the relationship of pandas and their chosen food source is the framing device of almost all scientific research into the animal (sample paper: “Giant Panda Bear Genome Unveiled: Bamboo Diet May Be Linked to Inability to Taste Savouries”), a kind of meta-narrative for the overall particularity of the bears and their long survival.

That is because – to the casual observer, at least – bamboo and pandas appear to be in a marriage of profound inconvenience. In the wild, bears eat for up to 13 hours a day, digesting about 17% of what they consume, compared to, say, 80% for a grass-eating deer. Owing to their low-calorie diet, pandas are unable to build up sufficient fat reserves to hibernate and have smaller brains, smaller kidneys and smaller babies than other mammals their size. Surviving – just about – on bamboo is both the evolutionary genius of pandas and the limiting factor of their existence. George Schaller, a pioneering biologist who tracked giant pandas for five years in Sichuan during the 1980s, describes eating the plant each day as their “one great vision in life”.

Foraging alone, and sleeping when they are not eating, wild pandas seldom come into contact with humans. In the canon of Chinese history, art and folklore, they make only tiny and fragmentary appearances. The Classics of Seas and Mountains, a work of geography written some time between 770 and 256BC, speaks of the mo, “a bearlike, black and white animal that eats copper and iron”. (Pandas were most often encountered by herb-diggers in mountain camps who would find their cooking pots chewed out of shape.) From then on, the bears occurred under such a variety of names – around 20, including meng shi shou (beast of prey), bai bao (white leopard) and shi tie shou (iron-eating beast) – and implausible descriptions that by the time western explorers and missionaries began turning up in China in the 19th century, they did not know whether the beast was real or not. When Ted and Kermit Roosevelt, sons of the US president, Theodore, became the first westerners to shoot a panda, in western Sichuan in April 1928, they said it was “like the animal of a dream”. When Ruth Harkness, a New York fashion designer, became the first foreigner to capture a live panda eight years later, she named it Su Lin, meaning “a little bit of something cute”.

Scientists generally agree that there are five main factors that make primates, birds, bats and carnivores candidates for extinction: large body size; small geographic range; slow life cycle; high position in the food chain; and low population density. Giant pandas possess four out of five of these liabilities, but they also have one almighty advantage in a human-ravaged world – a direct line into our tender hearts. When Chiang Kai-shek wanted to thank the American people for sending aid to China during the second world war in 1941, he despatched, in his words, two “comical, black and white, furry pandas” to the Bronx zoo.

No one seems truly able to explain the emotional appeal of pandas, except to say that it is massive, instant and near-universal. Sir Peter Scott knew what he was doing when he made a largely invisible bear the logo of the World Wildlife Fund in 1961. At Edinburgh zoo, Alison Maclean has watched hundreds of thousands of visitors come and sigh and sometimes blink away tears as they watch Tian Tian and Yang Guang slowly cavort in their dens. “The way they sit, the way they pick things up, and eat … People just have an instant connection with them,” she said, “because they can look like someone in a suit.”

* * *

Of course, in the larger scheme of things, our soft spot for pandas has not counted for much. Biologists believe there were once 100,000 pandas in Asia. By the time Schaller and the WWF were invited to China to study the animal in 1980, there were little more than 1,000. Pandas had been under official protection in China for decades, but it had not made the slightest difference. Poaching, deforestation and snares left out for deer and wild pigs had devastated the population. By 1985, after a bewildering bamboo die-off in Sichuan, during which hundreds of pandas starved to death, the icon of the global conservation movement, a survivor of ice ages, was about to disappear.

Zoologists around the world wondered how to get the numbers up. One possibility was by breeding the bears in captivity. The question was how. The only accounts of panda reproduction in western scientific literature were tantalising scenes from Schaller’s fieldwork. Crawling through bamboo thickets in the fog and snow, Schaller had watched complex mating rituals in which lone females climbed hemlock trees and moaned while four or five males paced and fought below, pushing each other off cliffs. “At 17.50, she descends,” Schaller wrote of one such encounter in 1981. “He mounts briefly four times in rapid succession. Both squeal, chirp and bleat, and the male pants.”

One of the myths that biologists are keenest to dispel is that pandas are bad at breeding. You don’t survive for 7m years without knowing a thing or two. It’s just that panda sex, like many other things about pandas, is not quite like anything else. There is the “fetalised” panda penis, with its unusually small and winged baculum (penis bone), which seems to place a certain emphasis on technique, and those short, passing hours when the females are ready to breed. The whole reproductive event is shrouded by the same energy shortage that defines panda lives. Cubs are born ludicrously small and immature, weighing around 100g – 000.1% of their mothers, or the size of a mouse. If a panda gives birth to twins, she will abandon one in a matter of days because she cannot look after both. Schaller concluded that successful mating in the wild rested on an intricate process of “synchronisation”, in which males and females subtly geed each other up, over the course of days if not weeks, through calling, scent-marking and other indecipherable means, until they were ready to take the plunge.

The difficulty has been in recreating those conditions in captivity. Schaller, who is now 82 and the vice-president of Panthera, a big cat conservation organisation, is among those who believes it is more or less impossible. “If you sit next to the same animal year after year,” he asked me, “where is the excitement?”

For a long time, international efforts to figure out the problem were chaotic and poorly coordinated. Western zoos poured millions of dollars into panda displays – pandas cost $1m a year to borrow from China – with scant thought for their conservation, while China’s domestic panda work was stultified by bureaucracy and paranoia. The absence of the bears from pre-communist iconography allowed them to emerge during the 1960s and 1970s as powerful and politically safe symbols of the new China. But the country’s zoos and panda reserves were short on funding and expertise. They were mortified when foreign biologists proved more successful at breeding pandas than they were. In 1991, vets at London zoo learned that their new female panda, Ming Ming, who had been sent to the UK ostensibly to breed, had already been artificially inseminated around a dozen times in China without success, and was almost certainly infertile. “We all knew: I knew. They knew. I think they knew we knew,” Jo Gipps, the zoo’s former director, told me.

Out of sheer desperation, things began to change. By the mid-1990s, there were 117 pandas living in captivity in China, a worrying proportion of them descendants of a single, libidinous male called Pan Pan. At a conference in Chengdu in December 1996, a group of international breeding specialists, together with around 50 Chinese scientists, agreed to overhaul the programme. A proper studbook, recording the genetic information of captive pandas, was introduced (Tian Tian is number 569, Yang Guang is 564) and every bear got a health check. Biologists swapped hunches and the breeding rate ticked up. In the 25 years between 1963 and 1989, 119 pandas were born in captivity, of which around one in three survived. In the decade that followed, 109 were born and 66 survived.

Since then, China’s captive population, which is mainly based in large breeding centres, where females have plenty of mates to choose from, has increased to 396 pandas – a level regarded as genetically safe from inbreeding. The wild population has enjoyed a similar, quiet recovery, although these animals remain trapped in their long, slow dance with extinction. Earlier this year, the latest quadrennial survey reported that a total of 1,864 pandas are living in around 30 fragmented populations in the forests of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu. If they were people, you could fit them on a couple of tube trains.

* * *

Iain Valentine is an unguarded, hopeful soul. “I wouldn’t say I am a serious scientist,” he told me one morning in the old keeper’s bungalow at the zoo, where he has his office. “But I have an inquisitive brain, so I will puzzle something out or have a theory or an idea about something.” The thought of bringing pandas to Edinburgh first took hold in 2005. Valentine had just got hold of some koalas from San Diego zoo, which has one of the best panda-breeding records outside China, and he decided to ask their advice. “Of course they all fell about laughing,” he said, “because they realised that you are crazy if you start the journey.”

It took six years. Pandas in China are the preserve of the State Forestry Administration (which runs the reserves and breeding centres) and the Ministry of Construction (which runs the zoos). A few initiatives, such as the country’s reintroduction programme, in which captive pandas are trained to live in the wild – with the help of scientists in panda suits, smothered in urine and faeces – are run by both at the same time. Valentine sent emails and beseeched diplomats. He made fact-finding trips to Beijing. When China’s main panda breeding centre, in Wolong, was destroyed by the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 (one panda was killed), he had Edinburgh zoo send £15,000 and a set of satellite phones.

The years of waiting gave him time to devise his own plans. Valentine thought the bears would do well in the cold and wet Scottish climate, and that it wouldn’t be hard to grow bamboo for them to eat. To increase his chances of producing a cub, he decided to brook convention and ask for two adult pandas that had already bred – Tian Tian gave birth to twins in 2009 – rather than a sub-adult pair who would come into sexual maturity at the zoo. “I thought, ‘Hey hey, I’m off and running here,’” he told me. “I was wrong. I was wrong on lots of fronts.”

The deal to bring Tian Tian and Yang Guang to Edinburgh was signed on 10 January 2011, as part of a £2.6bn trade package between the UK and China that included an agreement to pursue deepwater drilling in the South China Sea. It came at an exceptionally turbulent time for the zoo. Poor summer weather in 2009 and 2010 and the impact of the recession had pushed the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland to the edge of financial collapse. The zoo was then hit by a series of scandals and fallings-out among its senior staff. (One manager was accused of stealing money intended for the chimpanzee enclosure). After Valentine and Maclean went to the Bifengxia panda reserve to meet Tian Tian and Yang Guang for the first time in March 2011, Valentine was suspended from his job for four months, briefly threatening the whole project. (He was subsequently reinstated to a post more narrowly focused on the pandas, and the deal got back on track.)

The arrival of the bears, however, swept the gloom away. They turned up on a FedEx truck on 4 December, and went on display 10 days later. During a typical December, Edinburgh zoo gets around 8,000 visitors. In the last two weeks of 2011, 56,000 people came to see Tian Tian and Yang Guang, and their popularity has proved surprisingly resilient ever since. Zoo economics says that you can expect a 70% bounce in visitor numbers in the first year of a panda loan, with the increase fading to 9% by year three, but the bears in Edinburgh have bucked the trend. Last year, the zoo’s numbers were still 25% up, three years in, and that has been without a cub to really pull in the hordes.

When I asked Valentine what a baby panda would mean for the zoo’s finances, he garbled his words in excitement. “The sky’s the rocket,” he said.

* * *

The Edinburgh team had its first shot in the spring of 2012, just a few months after the pandas arrived. By then, Maclean and Valentine had already realised that the bears were much more sensitive than they had previously thought. They hated the wind, and were easily spooked by noise. They spent most of their time in indoor viewing areas attached to their enclosures, rather than outside. Their keepers, meanwhile, got a crash course in bamboo. Yang Guang, in particular, has turned out to be something of a gourmand, discarding one species of the plant in favour of another, and switching between stalks and leaves, sometimes on a daily basis. (Maclean now serves the pandas 24 different species of bamboo, which are shipped in weekly from a plantation in the Netherlands). At the same time, Tian Tian began to show flashes of her mercurial personality. When Chinese keepers came to check on her, they surprised Maclean by calling her “Bad Panda”.

The first breeding season was more or less a trial run. In fact, it is the only time the pandas have ever been put together to mate. I watched footage of one of their introductions, and saw Yang Guang hoisting himself uncertainly in Tian Tian’s direction, while she squirmed under him and seemed to bark unhelpful instructions. “He’s a gentleman and maybe he shouldn’t be,” said Maclean. “Do you know what I mean?”

In 2013, a long winter and gale-force winds seemed to play havoc with Tian Tian’s hormones. “We thought she would never get to the point,” said Girling, the vet. Even a Chinese expert from Wolong was “a little bit flummoxed”, according to Valentine. Eventually, Tian Tian started sending contradictory signals to Yang Guang as well, calling him into her enclosure and then scaring him away. “Her behaviours just weren’t conducive,” said Valentine. Last year was a similar story: “He was interested in her, she was not interested in him.” Zookeepers do not like being drawn on questions of animal rapport, but there is obviously something missing between Edinburgh’s bears. “She is not seeing him,” Maclean explained, “as the big, butch male.”

The team has resorted to artificial inseminations, but in their way, these have only revealed new layers of mystery. Like other bears, female pandas experience embryonic diapause, which means that once a fertilised egg has become a blastocyst, it can float around in the uterus for months until the mother is in a prime state to embark on her pregnancy. Among energy-starved pandas, this wait can last a very long time. Gestation periods have been timed at anything between 83 days (a little short of three months) and 163 (closer to six). For unknown reasons, female pandas also often experience “pseudo-pregnancies”, generating all the symptoms – hormonal changes, nipple development, even the production of bright-green first-stage breast milk – just without the cub. They can also lose the foetus – re-assimilating it back into their tissue, a process known as “resorption” – at any point. “It blows your mind,” said Maclean. Ultrasounds rarely help, because panda foetuses are so small.

This means that summers at the zoo have taken on an aching, expectant quality, with keepers, vets and visiting Chinese experts often reduced to their own personal theories and coping strategies to survive the months of hope and doubt. “You can get befuddled with the numbers,” Maclean admitted. The press and the outside world do not help, getting revved up in the spring about panda sex and the “tunnel of love” – as the rarely used connecting passage between Tian Tian and Yang Guang’s den has been called by the Scottish papers – then bored in the summer and cynical by the autumn. Last year, Edinburgh even had to put up with sniping from San Diego zoo, where a spokeswoman cast doubt on Tian Tian’s reported pregnancy. Valentine insists that Tian Tian fell pregnant in both 2013 and 2014, only to resorb the foetus a few weeks later. He says she has the scars on her uterus wall to prove it.

The whole thing is a drama. And the sense of spectacle – the press releases, the inseminations, the fabulous cost (Edinburgh’s pandas cost up to £2m a year to run, about 20% of the zoo’s budget) – provokes questions about what exactly pandas in western zoos are meant to achieve. From a strict conservation point of view, everyone knows that shipping individual pairs of pandas across the world, to strange cities in strange climates, is a terrible way to make more of them. “How do we save giant pandas? Send them all back to China,” Gipps, the former director of London zoo, told me. “Put them into breeding situations where they can really make babies.”

Many wildlife campaigners even question the scale of China’s captive breeding programme, believing that now it has passed the point of ensuring genetic diversity, the emphasis should be on reintroducing the bears in large numbers to the wild. (Since 2006, just four pandas are known to have been released, of which two have died.) And then there is the equally problematic, but more subjective, issue of how the pandas feel about it all: after making it through the Miocene and Pleistocene eras, do they really want to stick around for a life of panda cams and anal probes? As Chris Packham, the BBC wildlife presenter, put it in 2009: “Let them go with a degree of dignity.”

When I put this to Valentine and Maclean, they rehearsed the familiar arguments for sending pandas abroad. The bears generate millions of dollars for important scientific research and conservation work in China. They are what campaigners call an “umbrella species” – a charismatic mammal saving the hides of tens of thousands of less lovable organisms in the bamboo forests of Sichuan. And there are still so few of them, the logic goes, that even a cub produced at vast expense in Scotland is still one more panda. (Maclean and the other keepers hope that any offspring of Tian Tian might one day grow up to enter China’s reintroduction programme). For people in the business of selling conservation to a paying public (a ticket to Edinburgh zoo costs £18), giving up on pandas would also mean giving up on the idea that people’s emotional response to the natural world matters at all. “If you can’t save the panda, then what can you save?” Valentine asked me. “Because I am going to find it really hard to get people interested in snails.”

After so many years of trying, though, these abstract arguments give way to more personal hopes. Spending time at the zoo this summer, I got the impression that the members of the the panda team at Edinburgh had each developed their own motives for wanting Tian Tian and Yang Guang to breed. One afternoon, Maclean and I stood talking about Tian Tian’s prickly personality. Her outdoor enclosure stood empty; she was taking a nap inside. Maclean wore a purple training whistle around her neck. “I don’t think I would ever stop trying,” she said. “I think it is very important that she has cubs. You know, it is the only time I would say she is going to be sociable with another panda – when she is with a youngster.”

Valentine, meanwhile, is a man with a riddle to crack. Once he described breeding pandas as a “biological moonshot”, and the entire enterprise – its complexity, its farcical notes – seems to give him great pleasure. In late July, as the rest of the zoo slipped into the now-familiar summer longueur of diapause and advanced panda semiotics (“As we like to say, ‘She has a bun in the oven, but the oven is not switched on yet,’” the panda presenters told the crowds every 10 minutes or so), Valentine buzzed around with graphs and theories. He dropped hints about a new battery of tests, monitoring Tian Tian’s prostaglandin metabolites, a compound that helps induce labour in humans, which he believed would help track the progress of panda pregnancies with more accuracy and certainty than ever before. Valentine described this work alternately as “classified” and “new science”. “You have to understand,” he said, “I’m a much more optimistic than a pessimistic person.”

The bears, of course, gave nothing away. One day I watched Yang Guang drink slowly from a dish of water, then transport himself with implausible grace from a wooden platform to a metal bed filled with hay, where he covered himself in bamboo, as if tipping a salad bowl on top of his head. Tian Tian, meanwhile, specialised in her own amusement. She has a habit of going into her indoor viewing area for a drink, waiting just long enough for the keepers to spot her on their cameras, and then slipping out of view as the crowds arrive. One morning, in a seemingly restless mood, she walked up and down along the glass wall of her outdoor enclosure, a display of strolling that quickly filled the stands with visitors. Tian Tian sat down in a pond and looked out at us. There was a long moment when the bear seemed to become mutually transfixed by a toddler in a blue coat who was wearing a set of reins. The panda stared at us. We stared back. “What is that?” the boy asked, finally, pointing at Tian Tian. “What is that?”

* * *

According to Valentine’s data, Tian Tian became pregnant during the second week of July. In recent years, scientists at Memphis zoo, in Tennessee, have developed a test involving ceruloplasmin, an enzyme produced in the liver, which they claim can distinguish between real and pseudo panda pregnancies. By early August, Valentine was confident that this reading tallied with Tian Tian’s other hormone data. He picked up a spike in her prostaglandin metabolites as well, another good sign. Tian Tian was also acting differently. She ate less and slept more. Her mammary glands grew. She began to spend more time in and around her cubbing box, a basket that her keepers had placed in her den and modified this year to include a heating element. She dragged in rotting logs, and scratched at the bark on the walls.

When I called to check in with the panda team on the afternoon of 12 August, Girling told me that Tian Tian was “just grand”. Valentine’s voice was thick with an elation I had not heard before. “She’ll give birth next week,” he said. “I am 90% certain it is going to happen.”

After years of trying, Valentine explained, everything was finally falling into place. The labs had used the new tests to analyse old urine samples collected from Tian Tian in 2013 and 2014, and Valentine was confident that he now understood what had gone wrong. The foetus in 2013, he explained, had only developed for a week before it was resorbed. In 2014, it was two and a half weeks. We were well past that stage now. “The numbers are very different this year. That is what we wanted,” he said. “I think we are over the hump.”

The keepers began a 24-hour watch of Tian Tian two days later, logging into the cameras from home and monitoring her in four-hour shifts. Because of gaps in her urine data, which made timings difficult to predict, Valentine forecast a four-day window for the birth, from August 18 to August 21. Maclean and her team competed for slots on the watch rota. For two years, her office has contained a fold-out hospital bed and intensive care baby incubator – in case Tian Tian gives birth to twins, and she has to rear one herself. The walls are covered with instructions on how to prepare puppy formula, which is used for baby pandas. Maclean unfolded the bed, and sterilised the room. On the afternoon of August 17, the zoo closed the panda enclosures and thanked visitors for their cooperation “during this exciting, but delicate period”.

Tian Tian withdrew into herself. Treated decorously by her keepers all year round, they gave her extra space, and fed her bamboo shoots. She kept her back turned, making it difficult to conduct even visual examinations. “We couldn’t get near her,” Maclean said. Sometimes the panda growled and barked. It became impossible to contemplate carrying out an ultrasound, which might reveal a glimpse of the cub, and even to collect urine samples, whose analysis Valentine hoped might give a 24-hour warning of the birth. On the night that the zoo closed the panda enclosures, he emailed: “We are flying blind and not sure what is going on.”

Relying on their observations of Tian Tian alone, the panda team were not sure how to interpret her behaviour. They had never seen her so intransigent before, but they had also never believed themselves to be so close to the birth of a cub. Valentine veered between worry and bursts of overwhelming excitement. “This is the first time ever,” he said. “This has never happened to us.”

Last Tuesday afternoon, Maclean noticed damp patches appearing on Tian Tian’s cubbing box. They came from under her tail. They were clear, vaginal secretions. The panda began to lick herself and the team prepared for her to give birth. “Iain was the level-headed one,” Maclean told me. “We were skipping around the section, trying not to grin from ear to ear.” But nothing came. Valentine, who does not have access to the cameras at home, went to bed and prayed for the phone to ring.

The same pattern repeated the following day. More secretions. More skipping. No cub. “We got to the point where we thought, ‘This is a bit strange,’” said Maclean. “But you let your heart rule your head.” On Thursday, Tian Tian dragged more logs into the cubbing box. The increasing agony of waiting in Edinburgh was interrupted by happy news from abroad: a successful ultrasound, followed by the birth of twins, at the Smithsonian zoo in Washington; Malaysia’s first ever panda cub, born in Kuala Lumpur.

When I spoke to Valentine last Friday morning, on the last day that Tian Tian was expected to give birth, he did his best to sound pleased about the other zoos. “Isn’t that wonderful?” he said. “It is great when other people do it.” But his voice was empty, and tired. “This is tough,” he said. “This is really hard. We’re grabbing on to the positive behaviours we see, but also we start to think, ‘Well shouldn’t we be seeing this by now?’” He hadn’t had a urine sample from Tian Tian for over a week. Valentine talked me through the scientific progress of another breeding season: from the insights gained by the prostaglandin work, he explained, he was close to a final, precise figure for the length of a panda pregnancy. But he was already wondering what on earth had gone wrong.

The following night, at around 10pm, Valentine emailed the rest of the panda team and told them they could stand down. For a fourth year in a row, there would be no cub. They had never come so close. “This has been another step,” he told me later. “But how many steps do we need? I don’t know.”

Yesterday the panda enclosure at Edinburgh zoo was closed. A black gate barred the entrance. Padlocks hung on the doors to the indoor viewing areas. At around lunchtime, I slipped inside with Valentine and Maclean. There was no wind, and the air smelled slightly of fish, from the penguin exhibit next door. “My husband was like, ‘Will a cuddle help?’” Maclean said. “I was like, ‘Nope. Step away.’ It’s sad. It’s hugely sad. I wanted it for her. But we will pick ourselves up and go again.”

Yang Guang was in his den. We fed him a couple of apples. When he stood on his hind legs, he came up to my shoulder. There was a small set of TV screens in the corner, and one of them showed Tian Tian in her own den next door. She was on her back, legs splayed, on top of her cubbing box. Earlier, Maclean had been in to see her, alone. When she turned on the lights, Tian Tian had covered her eyes with her paws. Now she lay in the gloom, staring up at the bars on the ceiling. It was her 12th birthday.


CS Monitor

National Zoo staff keeping close eye on newborn panda twins

Mei Xiang, a panda at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, gave birth to twins on Saturday, and staff scientists are closely monitoring the bears in their fragile early days.

By Susan Heavey, Reuters August 24, 2015   

Washington — National Zoo staff are keeping a close eye on giant panda Mei Xiang's newborn twins, given the cubs' fragile state just days after their birth, the zoo's lead veterinarian said on Monday.

"The cubs are doing pretty well. These early days everything's still touch and go, so we're watching them closely but we're very hopeful right now," Dr. Brandie Smith told CNN.

Mei Xiang, a star tourist draw, took staff by surprise on Saturday by giving birth to the twins about four-and-a-half hours apart after being artificially inseminated. Giant pandas are among the world's most endangered species.

Smith said the new cubs are so tiny and fragile that problems could still arise, anything from a congenital defect to difficulties with the mother panda's ability to care for the two new small babies, each still fur-less and about the size of a stick of butter.

"Almost anything could go wrong in these first few days," she told CNN's "New Day" program. Smith is the zoo's associate director for animal care sciences, overseeing care for all of its mammals.

Zoo staff have been occasionally switching out one cub and keeping it in an incubator, tracking each cub's progress by measuring and weighing them each time. Staff are also continually monitoring Mei Xiang.

The mother panda was artificially inseminated in April with sperm from Hui Hui, a panda in China, and from the National Zoo's Tian Tian. Zoo officials have said they do not yet know which insemination was successful, and that it is possible the twins have different fathers.

Giant pandas, native to China, have a very low reproductive rate, especially in captivity. There are about 300 giant pandas in captivity and roughly 1,600 in the wild.

 on: Aug 25, 2015, 05:35 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Rhino horns for sale in San Francisco's Chinatown despite crackdown

Trade in bear bile and other illicit animal products continues as local shopkeepers point to tradition: ‘Why are we punished for our culture?’


Joseph Mayton in San Francisco
Monday 24 August 2015 20.02 BST

California legislators aiming to pass more stringent regulations on the sale and dissemination of ivory and rhinoceros horns received a boost last Friday when a San Francisco man pleaded guilty to selling an undercover federal agent two black rhinoceros horns for $55,000. The art dealer Lumsden Quan and Mill Valley man Edward Levine will face sentencing in December.

But despite this guilty plea and the attempt at a crackdown, rhino horns and other illicit animal products remain on sale in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

At Wei’s spice shop, Tiffany, a Chinese-American attorney who has just finished law school, waits until the rush of customers subsides before turning to the owner to ask what other items are for sale in the back. This shop, she says, is where her friends have said rhino horn can be purchased.

“He said he has what we are looking for,” Tiffany says, as Wei, an elderly man who says he is in his 80s, hurries back with a number of jars and containers. He rattles off the contents of each one in Chinese. “Bear bile, black rhino horn, Javan rhino horn. He says he can get anything you want,” says Tiffany.

Wei makes a kissing motion with his lips. “Apparently, this is what can get your sex drive going, he says,” Tiffany translates.

Although rhino horns do not have any medical benefit, nor do they act as an aphrodisiac, some traditional Asian doctors believe they can help treat fever, rheumatism, gout and other disorders. Chinese medical texts from the 16th and 17th century, including Li Shih-chen’s 1597 text Pen Ts, allude to the healing power of the horn, which is ground up to make a fine powder to treat an assortment of minor ailments.

According to the lobby group Save the Rhino, it “is a testimony to the power of tradition that millions of people believe” in its supposed benefits. “Of course, if people want to believe in prayer, acupuncture or voodoo as a cure for what ails them, there is no reason why they shouldn’t, but if animals are being killed to provide nostrums that have been shown to be useless, then there is a very good reason to curtail the use of rhino horn.”

Kai, an elderly shopkeeper with a business just down the street from Wei’s, disagrees and says Chinese medicine should be subject to similar laws to those that permit Native Americans to carry out their traditions, in a limited manner. “Why are we being punished for our culture?” he asks, as he slides a container he claims contains rhinoceros horn powder. “This is important to Chinese people and Asians, so it isn’t right to just say: ‘No more.’”

He adds: “I sell this for hundreds of bucks per gram, so it is good business and I don’t want to lose this.” When asked whether he believes Asian desire for rhino horns has given rise to massive poaching in Africa and elsewhere, leaving rhino populations endangered and on the verge of extinction, he smiles. “It is life. Things die out and we can’t get too concerned about it.”

California bill AB-96 aims to end the trade in rhino horns as well as ivory across the state. Sponsored by state assembly speaker Toni Atkins and state senator Ricardo Lara, the legislation intends to give law enforcement the ability to better enforce pre-existing regulations as well as to add specific language regarding what is not permissible when dealing with endangered rhinos and elephants.

The bill, which heads to a final committee hearing on Thursday – and which the sponsors hope will be passed during the current assembly session – would end exemptions and make possessing such endangered-animal parts a crime with a penalty of up to $10,000.

The art dealer Quan and Edward Levine were charged under existing federal wildlife-protection laws.

All rhino species are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an agreement among 175 countries to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is the federal agency responsible for the US government’s implementation of CITES.

All five species of rhinos surviving in the wild today are also listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

• Some names in this article have been changed

 on: Aug 25, 2015, 05:32 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Why moth-trapping makes my heart flutter

Martin Wainwright

This hobby is surging in popularity, and I can see why – it’s easy, relatively cheap, and is a window into a world of beautiful, abundant creatures

Monday 24 August 2015 12.09 BST

It is encouraging to read reports of a growth of interest in moth-trapping in the UK. The practice may sound like the ultimate resort for nerds but it has given me unflagging pleasure for 10 years, since an enormous box on my birthday brought an inspired present from my wife.

It was a Robinson mercury vapour lamp, the Rolls-Royce of moth traps. She knew that I had yearned as a boy for one to accompany my butterfly net and pieces of cotton wool soused in some diluted variant of chloroform. Those were Enid Blyton days when a 12-year-old could visit the chemist to buy small bottles made up of what you and the pharmacist both knew as “killing fluid”.

Such collecting practices are frowned upon today, understandably when digital cameras have replaced the smudge-producing Brownie and removed the need for actual specimens. The moth trap was never tarnished in that way because it does not kill anything. It was simply unaffordable.

These days, a Robinson cost around £300 with cheaper variants available, including one with a blacklight that removes potentially neighbour-upsetting glare. A threefold increase in their sales has prompted the preservation group Butterfly Conservation to suggest that moth-trapping is the UK’s fastest-growing natural-history hobby.

Running one is a simple matter of switching on the light at dusk and turning it off in the morning, when you will find a guaranteed harvest of moths slumbering inside. At the start and end of the season, from early March until late October, you will find tens or dozens, and hundreds during the high months from the beginning of June to the end of August.

There will be plenty in the supposedly traditional moth colours of brown and grey, but others will be enlivened with splashes of pink, emerald and yellow, metallic gleams of silver and gold and remarkable deterrent camouflage – eyes, dots and stripes bearing an uncanny likeness to leaves, twigs, bark and even lichen. There are common winter moths whose equivalent of blood has been studied by the makers of antifreeze; many have influenced aircraft designers and fashion artists; others use sonic countermeasures against one of their sneakiest predators, bats.

You can enjoy them solo or get together with others and learn from their expertise. Butterfly Conservation and the National Trust are among those who run moth evenings, and there is a long list of mothy websites. I have benefited hugely over the years from Yorkshire Butterfly Conservation and now the Upper Thames Moths blog, whose gurus appropriately include a retired air traffic controller.

You will soon notch up a long and eloquently named list of species. There are more than 2,500 different moths in the UK, compared with fewer than 60 butterflies. Your data will be welcomed as part of an increasingly thorough picture of their health and numbers, joining reports from traps around the coast (whose records of immigrant moths appear on a Flight Arrivals website) and at Buckingham Palace, whose trap once found the UK’s first example of an East African species, soon after a presidential visit from that part of the world.

Parliament too hosts a trap from time to time, usually organised by moth enthusiast Madeleine Moon MP, the Labour member for Bridgend who is a great champion of the hobby. She has regularly made political use of one of the dreams of moth trappers – finding something entirely new to the UK and having the glory of its being named after you.

This is likelier than it sounds, and fortuitously for Moon, the champion in the field is a man from the Isle of Wight called KG Blair, who trapped in the 1950s-70s and has no fewer than three moths named after him. At one of the many uneasy moments between Tony Blair and his deputy Gordon Brown, the moth world reported the most northerly trapping of the Blair’s shoulder-knot moth – in Brown’s Scottish constituency. We await further memoirs to discover whether this happy coincidence did anything to improve relations.

Seven moths to watch out for …

Large yellow underwing

A common species and the likeliest candidate for those fluttering around outside lights. It comes in three striking varieties – dark brown, latte-coloured, and in an army camouflage swirl of greens and browns; all have a bright orangey-yellow underwing which is flashed when the moth is alarmed.

Silver Y

Often seen on garden plants in daylight, its subtle varieties of grey are stamped with the gleaming letter Y which accounts for its name.

Riband wave

One of the daintiest of a large family which might aptly be called Laura Ashley moths for the delicate patterns and soft palette of their wings.


The bright-red and greeny-black dayflyer is familiar in meadows, especially if they contain ragwort on which its black- and yellow-striped caterpillars feed. Highly poisonous to birds and a marvellous example of warning colouration. It is no coincidence that yellow and black were adopted by the nuclear industry for warning signs.


An award-winner in camouflage which uncannily resembles a twig when at rest.

Another porchlight flutterer with the opalesque colouring found in oyster and mussel shells. It is one of the largest of the UK’s micro-moths – a huge array of species that are normally fingernail-sized or smaller. This is where the experts on moth websites come in.

Elephant hawk

A glorious confection of pink, yellow and lime. Search the lower leaves of Rosebay Willowherb in late August for its caterpillars whose grey colour and fake “eyes” give the species its name.

• Martin Wainwright reports on his moth finds at:

 on: Aug 25, 2015, 05:28 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Man killed during bull run in Spain pushes death toll to 10 so far for year

As the number of Spanish towns holding bull runs grows to nearly 16,000, the death of a man in his 40s pushes the toll to equal the record of deaths set in 2009

Agence France-Presse
Monday 24 August 2015 03.17 BST

A man has died after being struck by a bull, police said on Sunday, the 10th such death in Spain this year, making it one of the deadliest for the sport of bull running.

The unidentified man in his late 40s was struck by a bull several times during a run in the north-eastern town of Borriol on Saturday and died in hospital, a local police spokesman said.

New leftist mayors who swept to power across the country following local elections in May are considering halting funding for bull festivals, in which crowds of people run ahead of herds of bulls. Other towns are boosting security measures.

Festivities were cancelled in the town of 5,000 residents following the death.

This year’s toll matches the record of 10 deaths in bull runs, set in 2009.

Last weekend alone four men died after being gored by half-tonne fighting bulls in four different towns.

One of the victims, a 55-year-old man, was caught on video being repeatedly gored by a bull as he lay on the ground in front of a protective barrier that separated onlookers from bull run participants.

“It is an inevitability, an accumulation of coincidences, due mainly to the hordes of people who go to see the bulls,” said Alberto de Jesus, director of bullfighting magazine Bous al Carrer.

Nearly 16,000 town festivals will include bull events this year, nearly 2,000 more than last year, according to culture ministry figures.

“Town halls always have more bull runs during the year of municipal elections,” said Vicente Ruiz, the editor of El Mundo newspaper and a regular contributor to bullfighting blog La Cuadrilla. “The number of fiestas shoots up because they are popular.”

Most bull runs are held in August and September when towns hold festivals in honour of patron saints.

Ten people were gored this year during Spain’s most famous bull running festival, the week-long San Fermin fiesta in Pamplona in July.

Some towns have responded by increasing safety measures.

The town of Perales de Tajuna, some 40 kilometres (25 miles) south-west of Madrid, plans to have five ambulances on standby for its annual bull run on August 30, instead of just two as required by local regulations.

“First there are fireworks, then a procession in honour of the Virgin, finally the bulls,” the mayor of the town, Yolanda Cuenca Redondo, said. “The fiesta is what gives the town its identity.”

Jorge Rosco, a 37-year-old gas distributor who takes part in 25 to 30 bull runs in Spain each year, said the problem is that bull runs had become too crowded with many reckless participants.

“It is not possible to have more security measures than there are now,” he said. “But there are many more people – so many that sometimes you can’t even climb the safety fence.

“People don’t respect the bull. They take pictures, they provoke the bulls. It is not a game, they are animals that kill, you have to run with your head, conscious of what you are doing.”

A 32-year-old Spanish man was gored to death on 8 August near the central city of Toledo after being gored in the neck while filming a bull run.

The previous month a French tourist was gored to death while trying to film a run near Alicante with his mobile phone.

The Spanish town of Villafranca de los Caballeros, some 120 kilometres south of Madrid, made headlines last month when its newly elected socialist mayor decided to use its subsidy of €18,000 ($20,500) for an annual bullfight for books and school supplies instead.

The town is one of about a dozen that has begun questioning whether public funds should be used for bull events, after leftists took power in several Spanish municipalities in May’s local elections.

Madrid’s new mayor, Manuela Carmena, has vowed that “not one euro of public money” would go in funding bullfights, while several towns are mulling over holding referendums on the issue.

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