Pandas are notoriously shy when it comes to the act of procreation. But it turns out, all they require is a pandemic and a mass global shutdown to get in the mood away from prying eyes.
Ying Ying and Le Le, two giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) at Ocean Park in Hong Kong, have finally mated successfully for the first time after spending almost 10 years together at the park. According to an announcement by the zoo, the pair was caught in the act at 9 am local time on Monday, April 6, after showing signs that they had entered their hormonal oestrus cycle, or mating cycle, in late March.
The two sweethearts were first introduced at the zoo in 2011. While there were some initial attempts to mate, their efforts were met with a miscarriage and misfortune. However, following the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, Ocean Park has not had any visitors since January 26, and it seems this peace and quiet might have been the missing ingredient.
The gestation period for giant pandas ranges between 72 and 324 days, so with a little bit of luck, the zoo could be announcing some very good news later on in the coming year. The zoo hopes to confirm the pregnancy with an ultrasound scan nearer to the time of birth.
“Male and female giant pandas are sexually mature starting at ages of seven and five respectively. Since Ying Ying and Le Le’s arrival in Hong Kong in 2007 and attempts at natural mating since 2010, they, unfortunately, have yet to succeed until this year upon years of trial and learning," Michael Boos, Executive Director in Zoological Operations and Conservation at Ocean Park, said in a statement. "The successful natural mating process today is extremely exciting for all of us, as the chance of pregnancy via natural mating is higher than by artificial insemination.”
“If successful, signs of pregnancy, including hormonal level fluctuations and behavioral changes may be observed as early as late June, though there is always a chance that Ying Ying could experience a pseudo-pregnancy,” he added. “We hope to bear wonderful pregnancy news to Hong Kongers this year and make further contributions to the conservation of this vulnerable species.”
Native to a few small slivers of south-central China, pandas are well-known to have difficulty breeding in captivity, which isn’t good news considering the IUCN Red List lists them as vulnerable to extinction. There are a few reasons why the captive breeding of pandas is so tough, but it’s generally explained by the fact pairs have to be compatible and rely on a subtle range of communication that can be easily disturbed. It also doesn’t help that female pandas ovulate just once a year and can sometimes experience pseudo-pregnancies.
Of course, in these dark times, the joyful news has quickly spread on social media with equal measures sincerity and hilarity and, let's face it, just a tiny amount of jealousy.