Love is in the air for panda pair

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 March, 2011, 12:00am

After five years of chewing bamboo, Ocean Park's giant panda Ying Ying has finally got eyes for the opposite sex - but she'd better be quick if Hong Kong is to hear the patter of tiny panda feet.

Park keepers say the female panda has been acting strangely for weeks. She used to spend much of her time sleeping or quietly eating, but lately she has been bleating and playing in the water.

All of these are sure signs that Ying Ying, now five years old, is sexually mature and has entered her estrous cycle, according to theme park officials. Her actions attracted male panda Le Le, also a five-year-old, and they had a romantic moment yesterday after staff put them together.

'Both were energetic. But we could not confirm if they mated,' Suzanne Gendron, executive director of zoological operations and education at Ocean Park, said.

In a video showing their interaction, Ying Ying lay on the floor as Le Le tried hugging her neck and waist. Ying Ying continued her bleating.

The park even closed its Amazing Asian Animals section - which houses the two pandas and two red pandas - for their natural mating from Friday to Sunday. 'We have no time to lose,' Gendron said.

Giant pandas only ovulate once a year, and it allowed a small window of three days when the egg can be fertilised, she said. Hormonal levels peaked on Friday, indicating that the best time for Ying Ying has arrived.

To increase the chances of fertilisation, the park also carried out artificial insemination on Ying Ying after what appeared to be the natural mating between the two.

Depending on their mood, the pandas could meet each other again yesterday and today.

Nevertheless, the success rate of young pandas producing offspring is only 30 to 50 per cent. While pandas have to carry a panda fetus for around four months, animal experts can only confirm their pregnancy two weeks before they give birth.

Unlike humans, giant pandas do not put on weight when they are pregnant. A panda cub weighs only 50 to 230 grams, and Ying Ying weighs more than 400 times that: 97kg. Dr Wang Chengdong, a giant panda expert from the Wolong National Nature Reserve in Sichuan , said: 'A panda cub is as small as a piece of faeces.'

If Ying Ying gave birth to a cub, Ocean Park would be able to keep it, park chairman Dr Allan Zeman said.

Visitors should keep quiet when they go to see the pandas, park officials advised. A den has been prepared for the female in case she wants some time away from public eyes.

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover, the central government sent Ying Ying and Le Le from Sichuan to the park in 2007.

It sent another pair of pandas, Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, to Taiwan two years ago. The Taipei zoo tried artificial insemination on Yuan Yuan last month, which means the cities are competing to be the first to have a panda cub born this year.