Pandas may provide a population lesson
- Ocean Park pandas Ying Ying and Le Le are struggling to breed and could be heading back to their native habitat in a bid to encourage them
- The stress of Hong Kong is likewise a factor in couples in the city delaying having children or deciding against the idea
The giant panda pair at Ocean Park have much in common with the typical Hong Kong couple; they are not that interested in having offspring. Pandas, just like Hongkongers, have a low birth rate. The reasons may not be identical, but the solution could well be the same. Families need the right environment to thrive.
For pandas Ying Ying and Le Le, the key could well be heading back to their native habitat in Sichuan province to encourage them to start a family. Pandas are notoriously difficult to breed, but in captivity, the rate of having cubs falls to just 26 per cent of when in the wild. In the 11 years the pandas have called Hong Kong home, Ying Ying has had two phantom pregnancies and miscarried once. Biology is at play, but being the star attraction and a public favourite surely does not help; put simply, it is stressful.
The stress of Hong Kong is likewise a factor in couples in the city delaying having children or deciding against the idea. Work hours are long, flats small and cramped and children an expensive proposition. Unsurprisingly, the fertility rate is one of the lowest in the world, being just 1.13, well below the 2.1 per couple necessary to keep the population growing. With Hong Kong’s development and growth in mind, authorities have for years been looking for ways to encourage couples to have children and attract people from elsewhere to make the city home.
Improving living conditions would seem the sensible approach and there is a push in that direction through increasing the length of maternity and paternity leave. A suggestion that Ying Ying and Le Le would have a better chance of mating by sending them to the Wolong panda conservation area in Sichuan is in the same vein; reconstructed with Hong Kong funding after the 2008 earthquake, the sanctuary would give them quality time together in a less stressful environment. With the breeding period being 130 days, they could perhaps stay there for a year and a replacement pair of pandas could be loaned to Ocean Park. If the approach is successful and Ying ying gives birth, the happy family that is eventually brought back to Hong Kong could serve as a useful lesson in boosting Hong Kong’s population.