First signs of French romance for panda pair

PARIS Tue Jan 17, 2012 1:00pm EST

1 of 6. Giant pandas Yuan Zi (L) and Huan Huan relax inside their enclosure at the ZooParc de Beauval in Saint-Aignan, Central France January 17, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Benoit Tessier

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PARIS (Reuters) - Two giant pandas flown into France from China at the weekend appeared to be happily settling into their new home Tuesday and found time to snatch a moment of intimacy against the romantic backdrop of the Chateau-strewn Loire Valley.

Yuan Zi, whose name means "chubby," lost no time tucking into his favorite meal of bamboo shoots in his new enclosure at the ZooParc de Beauval near the Loire river, considered one of the 15 most beautiful zoos in the world.

Meanwhile Huan Huan, or "happy," padded idly around her new surroundings, apparently marking out her territory, before joining her partner on a patch of bamboo for a first display of affection on French soil.

Zookeepers Rodolphe and Delphine Delord are crossing their fingers that cupid's arrow will strike the pair, who were reared together and are still only three years old, even if it will be some time before they hear the patter of tiny panda feet.

"They're not sexually mature yet," Rodolphe told Reuters. "Even though they're genetically compatible, we'll still have to wait three years before the first offspring. Then it will probably be twins, as in 50 percent of cases with pandas."

Yuan Zi and Huan Huan were flown to France on a 10-year loan from China in a traditional diplomatic gesture aimed at strengthening ties with other countries.

China has been sending pandas abroad in a sign of goodwill since the 1950s, and it is hoped Yuan Zi and Huan Huan will further repair tensions between Paris and Beijing that began when pro-Tibet activists disrupted the Olympic torch relay in Paris in 2008, ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has worked to smooth relations since then, singling out China as a key partner during France's G20 presidency last year and welcoming President Hu Jintao with full state honors in late 2010.

Delord said the pandas were settling in better than could have been expected, possibly helped by the fact the temperature at Beauval is very similar to their habitat in China.

Adult pandas can chomp through 40 kg of bamboo shoots a day, but diet should also not be a problem at Beauval, where 20 varieties of French bamboo are on offer for the new guests.

Even with the food and sleeping quarters to the pandas' liking, that may not be enough to ensure successful mating, the keepers noted.

Once sexually mature, female pandas are on heat for three days a year and only respond to male advances for 24 hours in that period, so finding the right moment will be key.

(Reporting By Vicky Buffery, editing by Paul Casciato)

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