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China extends a friendly bear paw across Taiwan Strait

Beijing marked warming ties with Taiwan by sending two pandas, Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, to the Taipei Zoo.

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"Their intentions are clear," says Lai I-chung, with the pro-independence Taiwan Thinktank. "Beijing wants to use [the pandas] to pacify Taiwan. They want to cover up their threatening military posture and create an atmosphere in which the Taiwanese people would like to reunite with China.

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Some Chinese netizens had their own concerns about the pandas' fate. "[The] poor pandas will be sent to that dangerous island," wrote one in a chat room on the popular website Tianya. "Are they going to be attacked and poisoned by the mob?

"I beg the DPP [the pro-independence party] not to kill the pandas in four years when they take office. Please send the pandas back home."

Panda propagation

After the panda pair settle into their new home and the initial hype fades, the focus will turn to babymaking. Both pandas are pushing 4-1/2 years old, which experts say equates to roughly 16 in human terms.

That means they're ready for romance, although the ideal age for breeding is 5 to 7 years old, Li Desheng, of the China Giant Panda Protection and Research Center, told China's People's Daily newspaper.

But experience at other zoos shows that, to paraphrase Shakespeare, "the course of panda love never did run smooth." Pandas are notoriously hard to breed in captivity.

Veterinarian Kanika Mimtragul should know. She's been trying for three years to breed her pandas, Chuang Chuang and Lin Hui, at the Chiang Mai Zoo in Thailand.

Females are in heat for only three days each year, usually in February or March, Ms. Mimtragul explained in a phone interview.

They're also extremely picky about their mates, and have been known to attack would-be Casanovas who didn't spark their fancy, panda expert Chen Yucun said on CCTV.

In Chiang Mai, it's the male Chuang Chuang that hasn't been up to the task. The zoo has tried its best to interest him in sex – showing him videos of other giant pandas mating, among other tactics. All to no avail.

"Our male giant panda, he doesn't like mating, I don't know why," Mimtragul says. "I tried to stimulate him in many ways, but he did not respond."

Artificial insemination is tricky, too. The Chiang Mai Zoo tried it after giving up on the natural process. But Mimtragul says they were too late – about 30 hours after ovulation – due to delays waiting for a team of panda reproduction experts to arrive from Bangkok, Thailand, and for hormone test results.

Daily exercise – and extra apples

Mimtragul said the Taipei Zoo may have an easier time of it, since they have no language barriers with Chinese panda-breeding experts.

"My panda has a problem," said Mimtragul. "But maybe in Taipei, they'll be more lucky."

Another good sign: commentators in China claim Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan genuinely like each other.

And according to the English-language China Daily, trainers have taken the pair for daily runs to strengthen their endurance for mating.

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