A middle-aged panda couple in Hong Kong made global headlines after they mated naturally for the first time in years. A major factor in this development is suspected to be the new-found privacy they are enjoying due to lockdowns to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Giant panda Ying Ying has been sharing her enclosure with male Le Le at the Ocean Park zoo in Hong Kong since 2007. The two 14-year-olds haven’t mated naturally for a while and conservationists have attempted to artificially inseminate the female in the past. However, the breeding programs never worked and led to miscarriages, reported The Guardian.
However, since the park has been closed to public since mid-January the couple started spending more time without any human interruptions. According to the zoo, the panda couple began attempts at natural mating after “years of trial and learning”.
“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.
“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,” Michael Boos, Executive Director in Zoological Operations and Conservation at Ocean Park said in a statement.
According to the zoo’s specialists, the pandas’ breeding season occurs only once every year from March to May.
While the female panda began spending more time playing in the water, the male panda has been leaving scent-markings around his habitat and searching the area for Ying Ying’s scent.
Veterinary and animal care teams have been closely monitoring the giant pandas and their behavioural changes. However, there are certain challenges.
“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,” the zoo said in a statement.
As female pandas ovulate only once a year and male pandas need to detect that successfully, often natural breeding process in zoos don’t succeed. They often rely on artificial insemination for conservation.
Panda pregnancies can be detected by ultrasound scan only 14 to 17 days before birth. So people around the world will just have to wait to see if there’s a baby panda on the way.