Hopes that tiny panda paws would be seen in the world’s first live-broadcast cub delivery were dashed on Tuesday when Chinese experts suggested the “mother” may have been focusing more on extra bun rations than giving birth.
The slated star of the show, giant panda Ai Hin, had last month shown signs of pregnancy at the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Centre, according to state news agency Xinhua.
A live broadcast of the event was planned, but Xinhua said her “behaviour and physiological indexes returned to normal”, citing experts saying she experienced a “phantom pregnancy”.
The breeding centre, in China’s southwestern province of Sichuan, commonly moves pandas which are thought to be pregnant into single rooms with air conditioning and round-the-clock care.
“They also receive more buns, fruit and bamboo, so some clever pandas have used this to their advantage to improve their quality of life,” Wu Kongju, an expert at the base told Xinhua.
Phantom pregnancy is said to be common among the endangered animals, and many bears continue to display pregnant behaviour after noticing the difference in treatment they receive, Xinhua said.
Six-year-old Ai Hin experienced reduced appetite, less mobility and a surge in hormones when her “pregnancy” was first detected, the news agency said, before further observations concluded it was fake.
The giant panda’s natural habitat is in the mountainous southwest of China. But the bears have a notoriously low reproductive rate and are under pressure from factors such as habitat loss.
Watch: Chinese zoo presents world's 'first surviving' panda triplets
China has about 1,600 pandas living in the wild and another 300 held in captivity. Their normal breeding season is mid-April to May.
“Only 24 per cent of females in captivity give birth, posing a serious threat to the survival of the species,” Xinhua said.
However, the centre and its affiliate zoos have seen some recent successes.
Guangzhou’s Chimelong Safari Park two weeks ago unveiled newborn panda triplets billed as the world’s first known surviving trio.
The mother panda, named Juxiao, meaning “chrysanthemum smile”, delivered the triplets at Guangzhou’s Chimelong Safari Park in the early hours of July 29.
”They were said to be the only panda triplets that have ever survived,” the safari park said.
Pictures taken earlier this month of the triplets showed the pink-coloured cubs inside an incubator with their eyes closed and bodies sparsely covered with white fur.
"The mother and babies were in good condition, but the adorable newborns were particularly inspiring,” the zoo said.
The gender of the cubs was not disclosed and they would be given their names at a later date.