Pregnant pause for park's pandas

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 March, 2012, 12:00am


The honeymoon ended yesterday for Ocean Park's young giant pandas Ying Ying and Le Le after three days tucked away from view to give them an opportunity to mate naturally.

But it seems they weren't up to the task.

So staff proceeded with two artificial inseminations on Ying Ying with Le Le's semen.

Now it is a case of 'wait and see' to find out if Hong Kong is expecting its first baby pandas.

But it could be a long wait.

A fertilised egg does not immediately implant but 'floats' around in the mother's reproductive tract for varying lengths of time. As a result, staff said the time from mating to birth ranges from 70 to 324 days.

And a real pregnancy can only be confirmed 14 days before birth.

Vets swung into action on Monday when Ying Ying began bleating and appeared restless - signs of being on heat, a once-a-year occurrence that lasts for only one to three days.

But despite their best intentions, it was not to be.

'They are very young and inexperienced,' said Suzanne Gendron, executive director of Zoological Operations and Education. 'When Ying Ying was anxious and ready to mate, Le Le was not, and vice versa!'

She is keeping her fingers crossed that the artificial insemination is successful.

The pandas were born in August 2005 in Sichuan province and arrived in Hong Kong in 2007. Pandas usually become sexually mature at the age of seven, although Ocean Park tried to mate them last year.

There are about 330 pandas in 54 centres worldwide and 1,600 in the wild, according to the WWF conservation group. They are considered an endangered species. Ocean Park is home to four.

A panda's first mating season yields a success rate of only 30 to 50 per cent. Given the small size of the fetus, hormonal tests, ultrasound or observations of the female's behaviour are the only clue birth is imminent. A panda only rarely gives birth to twins.

'If Ying Ying is pregnant, we'll be looking at July or later, even up to a year,' Gendron said. 'It is a waiting game now.'

If she is indeed expecting, the staff will build a 'birthing den' where she will be able to rest and enjoy some privacy. Ocean Park also plans to send some staff to the Ya'an panda centre in Sichuan for training on how to care for cubs.

Gendron is optimistic.

'This is nature. Being unsuccessful this time does not mean they are not compatible. Ying Ying and Le Le need more opportunities. They are still young,' she said.