The bridegroom bear

Japan sends Ling-Ling to Mexico on a mating mission that zoo keepers hope will bolster earth's dwindled population of beloved pandas.

It isn't every male who gets an all-expenses-paid trip halfway around the world to play suitor to a trio in appealing black-and-white attire.

But then Ling-Ling has the weight of the zoological world on his heavily padded shoulders.

Ling-Ling, whose home is the zoo in Ueno, Japan, was recently dispatched across the Pacific to Mexico with a very specific duty to perform. His mission - should he decide to accept it - is to woo the three female pandas in Mexico City's Chapultepec Zoo.

His arrival has created panda-monium among zoo-goers hoping for a cub. Since Ling-Ling's arrival Feb. 12, Sunday visits to the zoo have jumped by a fourth to more than 50,000 - even though the ursine Romeo is still being kept out of the public eye as he adapts to his new surroundings.

Ling-Ling's trip is the latest example of the great efforts that owners of the world's 100 captive pandas will make to guarantee the species' survival - and continue drawing the crowds who love the bamboo-munching beasts. Zoos in Atlanta, San Diego, and Washington, have spent millions for the loan of a potential mate for their pandas.

If all goes well here in Mexico, Ling-Ling would eventually sire several cubs. For the next five springtime mating seasons, Ling-Ling is signed up to mate with Mexico's female pandas Xin-Hua, Shuan- Shuan, and Xin-Xin.

But Ling-Ling is no Don Juan. For one thing, he is 15, which is middle-aged in panda years, and his amorous experience is limited. He was introduced to one female panda in Japan, but she died last year, before the two were able to present their keepers with any offspring.

Moreover, he has a hard act to follow here: Pe-Pe, the male of the panda couple presented to Mexico as a gift from China in 1975, made history in 1980 by fathering the first panda born in captivity outside China. Pe-Pe and partner Ying-Ying's mating venture, which lasted into the late 1980s, became an international sensation. The two delivered six offspring in all - a significant addition to the estimated 1,000 pandas on earth.

Pe-Pe and Ying-Ying may have put Mexico on the global panda map, but more than a decade after their passing, the Chapultepec Zoo is down to just the three female pandas: the famous couple's daughters Xin-Hua and Shuan- Shuan, and granddaughter Xin-Xin.

Ling-Ling's Japanese keepers are keenly interested in his success as a suitor. Arranging panda couplings is usually a high-dollar venture for the world's zoos. If the Chapultepec-Ueno project is successful, the Japanese zoo could add to its panda collection: Ling-Ling's first offspring would go to Japan, the second would stay in Mexico; and additional cubs would alternate in destination.

Panda experts say there are no guarantees. Even in the wild, female pandas often give potential mates the cold shoulder. In captivity, with no examples to emulate, as is the case with the three Mexican females, courtship can be protracted, clumsy, and fruitless.

Once Ling-Ling is finally introduced to his three potential mates, panda experts say he will probably get down to business by urinating on his paws. That way, when he rubs his ears, as pandas do, his hormone-laden aroma will waft high, sending an aphrodisiac signal to the ladies.

Ling-Ling will have to work fast. Female pandas normally stay in peak heat for only one to three days. If any pregnancies result, panda fans would have to wait up to five-and-a-half months for gestation. Usually appearing in August or September, pandas are born blind and almost hairless and typically weigh just 2.5 to 5 ounces. Eventually they can grow up to 220 pounds.

If this spring's mating season proves fruitless, there's always next year, and the Japanese suitor can try again.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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