The difficulty of getting giant pandas to shag in captivity is well-documented. These chastise beasts have become metaphorical shorthand for celibacy in the animal kingdom, and despite the tireless efforts of zoos and conservationists to get them to procreate, it often seems like the species at large is all too willing to ride this dry spell into extinction.
Of course, it’s possible that all they ever needed was a little bit of privacy. As the human world enters global shutdown, two pandas at Hong Kong’s recently closed Ocean Park zoo have finally done the deed. Park staff have been trying to get Ying Ying and Le Le to have sex for more than 10 years—and all it took was a devastating global pandemic to make it happen.
Ocean Park has been closed to visitors since late January. On Monday, 10 weeks after people stopped coming and gawking at the 14-year-old pandas, the park released a statement announcing that they had “succeeded in natural mating at around 9 AM this morning.”.
“This is the first success since the two giant pandas began attempts at natural mating a decade ago,” the statement reads. “Since late March, Ying Ying began spending more time playing in the water, while Le Le has been leaving scent-markings around his habitat and searching the area for Ying Ying’s scent."
The statement further notes that “such behaviours are consistent with those common during breeding season, which occurs once every year between March to May. With Ying Ying’s hormonal level changes, the Park’s veterinary and animal care teams confirm the two giant pandas have entered this year’s breeding season.”
It’s still too early to tell whether Ying Ying could be pregnant, but staff at the zoo are closely monitoring her body conditions and behavioural changes to see if a baby panda is on its way.
“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,” said Michael Boos, Executive Director in Zoological Operations and Conservation at Ocean Park. “If successful, signs of pregnancy, including hormonal level fluctuations and behavioural changes may be observed as early as late June, though there is always a chance that Ying Ying could experience a pseudo-pregnancy.
“We hope to bear wonderful pregnancy news to Hong Kongers this year and make further contributions to the conservation of this vulnerable species.”
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species currently ranks giant pandas as “vulnerable”—that is, one step away from “endangered.” According to Ocean Park, there are only about 1,800 remaining in their natural habitat.