Pandas getting cosier in S'pore

SINGAPORE - At around 5pm every day, an hour before closing time, male panda Kai Kai will climb up a small tree in its enclosure at the River Safari.

From that slightly elevated vantage point, the 115kg bear enjoys a direct line of sight to the food-preparation room. It can also spy on keepers walking along a pathway adjacent to the wall of its habitat.

"It knows it's the end of the day... mein zuo gang liao (Hokkien for "no need to work any more")," quipped Mr Ang Cheng Chye, assistant director of zoology at River Safari, in an interview on Monday.

The panda, which turns six years old next month, is then let into its den for the evening, and is given its overnight meal of close to 15kg worth of bamboo, Mr Ang added.

Such behaviour shows how comfortable Kai Kai and its female counterpart, Jia Jia, have got. The giant pandas have been in Singapore for nearly a year.

The pair, which are on a 10-year loan from China, arrived in Singapore on Sept 6 and were welcomed into the 1,500 sq m Giant Panda Forest exhibit.

Since then, they have showed behavioural traits which indicate that they are cosy in their new home. Those include Kai Kai's daily climbing habit, which started a few months back.

And Jia Jia, which turns five next month, has gone through an unusually-playful spell in the last month, tumbling down the slopes of its enclosure, and stamping and pulling on young shrubs.

My Paper got a behind-the-scenes look into how well the pandas were able to respond to cues from the keeper, from getting into a prone position to lying belly up, for their daily physical check-up.

While taking care of daily husbandry issues was the priority in the past year, Mr Ang's biggest hope for the coming year is that the endangered animals display signs that they are ready to mate.

However, their case may not be a straightforward one. Mr Ang explained that the pandas' mating behaviour is believed to be triggered by the length of daylight during winter to spring.

Kai Kai and Jia Jia are the "first pair of pandas to stay for the long term in the tropics", he added. Natural breeding, then, would really be an achievement.

"It's a case study for panda researchers around the world," said Mr Ang.

He said that artificial insemination may be considered, alongside natural mating. When asked when a panda cub can be expected to arrive, Mr Ang said: "Everything is up to them."

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