After eight years of waiting, will Hong Kong’s Ocean Park see its first locally conceived panda cub?
Enclosure shuts as Ying Ying and Le Le enter mating season with hopes that the pandas, a species known for sexual apathy, can produce offspring
Fans of Ocean Park’s panda pair Ying Ying and Le Le are expecting good news, as the park on Thursday announced the start of breeding season for two of its most recognisable mascots.
Now into their eighth year of trying to conceive – either naturally or through artificial means – the pair, if successful, would give the city its first ever locally born panda cub.
Hopes were dashed last year after signs of Ying Ying becoming pregnant from artificial insemination turned out to be a phantom pregnancy.
On Thursday, Suzanne Gendron, the park’s executive director of zoological operations and conservation, said changes in the pandas’ behaviour and hormone levels suggested the start of mating season, which typically occurs between March and May.
“Ying Ying has displayed oestrous behaviour (females being sexually receptive), while Le Le has shown increased interest in her scent and leaving his own scent markings around the habitat,” Gendron said.
An expert from the giant panda research and breeding facility in Sichuan province was set to join the park’s veterinary team this year, to boost the chances of successful insemination.
The park has closed its panda sanctuary until further notice, to minimise disturbances.
Pandas are known for their low libido, which makes breeding them in captivity difficult, compared to doing so with other animals.
Despite an extensive breeding programme set up for the pair, Ying Ying has been unable to conceive for the past three years, suffering two phantom pregnancies and a miscarriage in 2015.
Both Ying Ying and Le Le were a gift to Hong Kong from the central government to commemorate the 10th anniversary in 2007 of the city’s return to Chinese rule.
An earlier pair, An An and Jia Jia, arrived in town in 1999.
In 2016, Jia Jia died as the world’s oldest panda at 38, while An An, 32, continues to reside at the Wong Chuk Hang theme park.