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Thursday, 17 August, 2000, 13:53 GMT 14:53 UK
Pandas turned on by toys
Panda in a tree
The pandas seemed to enjoy the toys
After years of struggling to improve the feeble sex lives of giant pandas in captivity, researchers think they may have the answer - toys.

The introduction of toys into pens at China's Wolong Giant Panda Breeding Centre coincided with one of the best seasons for panda sex, New Scientist magazine reported.

I know they had some psychological effect

Ronald Swaisgood
The Wolong Reserve, in Sichuan province, enjoyed a rare baby boom, with six cubs born last week.

Four of the six males and eight of nine females mated in the reserve.

Better behaviour

Researchers are still doing tests to establish whether the pandas actually mated more often because of the toys, but it appears that their playthings did have some psychological benefits.

Pandas eat mostly bamboo, but digest little of it
Many male pandas raised in captivity spend hours a day engaged in repetitive behaviours called stereotypies, the magazine reported.

They might pirouette around the enclosure or suck a paw for 20 minutes or more.

Such males show little interest in females, and sometimes carry on twirling or sucking even when a female on heat is close by them.

But that behaviour changed when Ronald Swaisgood, a behavioural biologist working at the centre, decided to experiment and put toys in the pens.

He put stuffed burlap sacks, plastic balls and spruce branches in every few days.

Triplet babies
Six panda cubs were born in Sichuan last week
After a year, the pandas displayed repetitive stereotypies only a third as often as before, the article said.

"It wasn't just that they had more to fill their hours," said Mr Swaisgood, from San Diego's Centre for Reproduction of Endangered Species.

"Since there was much less stereotypy even after I removed the items, I know they had some psychological effect."

Low sex drive

With only about 1,000 giant pandas remaining in the wild, enormous efforts have been placed to get giant pandas to reproduce.

There are only about 1,000 pandas left
Pandas in captivity have been accused of having low sex drives and being too lazy to mate.

Pandas can only procreate during a short mating season. Survival rates of cubs are also low, even in the wild, with about 60% dying soon after birth.

The animal is indigenous only to China and is the country's national symbol.

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