Page last updated at 22:04 GMT, Saturday, 7 June 2008 23:04 UK

Giant panda sex secrets revealed


A female takes refuge up a tree as the males compete for her attentions

The giant panda's courtship and mating sequence - from boisterous beginning to noisy ending - has been filmed in the wild for what may be a TV first.

A BBC Natural History team recorded the magic moments deep in the bamboo forest that lines China's Qinling mountains.

The pictures show a male panda having to fight off the competition as he tries to woo and finally win a female.

The sequence, shot for BBC Two's Wild China series, illustrates behaviour that is rarely displayed in zoos.

Panda (Gavin Maxwell)
With rampaging males on the ground, it can feel safer higher up

These include the loud calls which will make viewers think instantly of the Wookie character from the hit Star Wars movies.

"I liken it to Chewbaccas in a pub brawl," explained Gavin Maxwell, the producer of Wild China.

"Most of the time, pandas live by themselves. It's only in the mating season that they come together; and that's when they start these extraordinary vocalisations.

"The sounds are so unlikely and just the last thing you would expect a panda to make.

"When you get two or three males together with a female there's an awful lot of barking and shouting going on."

Just getting in position to film the pandas took months of research, location reconnaissance and negotiations with the Chinese authorities. Obtaining the filmed sequence itself required an awful lot of patience and skill, and quite a bit of luck.

'Mini-quad bikes'

The Qinling mountains are carved with steep ravines and gullies. The growth of bamboo is so thick it can be extremely hard to get near the pandas, let alone get a clear shot of their behaviour.

If you make too much noise, the creatures will be long gone by the time you find their location.

Finally, the male wins his female

"They're like mini-quad bikes and once they go, they're off and they're very hard to keep up with," recalled Mr Maxwell.

Eventually, the team found an excellent spot looking across a ravine at a female high up in the branches. She was swaying back and forth as her would-be suitors patrolled below.

The biggest male is seen chasing the opposition off into the thicket. Finally, he gets his girl when she decides to descend from her tree.

This is not the first time panda sex has been filmed in the wild, but it is thought to be one of the most complete courtship sequences ever caught on camera.

Mr Maxwell described the venture as an eye-opener - to see pandas in a context that is far removed from the shy, placid reputation we traditionally associate with the animals.

"Occasionally, you will be sitting there quietly trying to keep in the background and the males will suddenly come charging out of the bamboo towards you," he explained.

"They're really fired up, they're breathing hard and panting, and you can see the steam coming out of their mouths. They seem like different creatures altogether."

Wild China is the BBC's first ever co-production with Chinese state television.

Wild China: Land of the Panda is broadcast on Sunday 8 June at 2100 BST

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