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Crowds flock to see cub hope panda

Visitors are flocking to Edinburgh Zoo to see giant panda Tian Tian amid growing excitement about her possible pregnancy.

Tickets to see the UK's only female giant panda and her male companion Yang Guang are being snapped up in their thousands.

Pre-booked viewing slots for the pair are sold out until Thursday according to the zoo's website, with only a limited number of tickets released each morning on a first come, first served basis.

Tian Tian is being monitored around the clock after the latest hormone tests showed positive signs she could be pregnant. She is spending less and less time in public view, but is "doing well", keepers say.

A cub could be born at any time in the next two weeks and experts are closely watching for signs of labour such as restless behaviour and bleating. The birth itself could last only a matter of minutes due to the small size of newborn cubs, which weigh approximately 100 grams.

Zoo staff are now able to log in from their computers and phones at home to keep Tian Tian under 24-hour surveillance.

Chinese panda keeper Haiping Hu, from the China Conservation and Research Centre (CCRCGP), arrived in Edinburgh on Saturday and will be on hand to assist if a cub or cubs are born during the next two weeks.

Iain Valentine, director of giant pandas for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, said everyone at the zoo was keeping their fingers crossed. He said: "This is the point where things could go wrong. Her body could reabsorb the cub or cubs, or if she does give birth the cub could be stillborn. So this is actually the trickiest time for pandas."

Tian Tian and Yang Guang became the first giant pandas in the UK for 17 years when they arrived at Edinburgh Zoo from China in 2011. It was hoped the pair would mate naturally but Tian Tian was artificially inseminated in April using semen from Yang Guang and Bao Bao, a "genetically important" panda who died at Berlin Zoo last year.

If a cub is born at Edinburgh Zoo it would be a first for the UK. Any cub will be the property of the People's Republic of China and would be expected to return to China when it is two years old - the age they would naturally disperse in the wild. Once in China it will join the conservation programmes there either for breeding or reintroduction into the wild.

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