One of the serious problems that pandas have is that they rarely mate. But quarantine and isolation, which has millions of people longing for physical contact again, seems to have had an effect on them, proving love can arise in times of a pandemic.
Ying Ying and Le Le are two giant pandas from Hong Kong's Ocean Park. Zoo employees have been trying to make them mate for a decade, as the species is in danger of extinction, to no avail. But it seems that all they needed was a little privacy, which the lack of visitors to the zoo due to the coronavirus outbreak has helped secure.
Even in captivity, breeding pandas is notoriously difficult. They are extremely selective about choosing their mates, which means that even if a male and female panda are kept in the same enclosure for years, there is no guarantee the pair will mate.
"Ying Ying and Le Le arrived in Hong Kong in 2007 and there have been attempts at natural mating since 2010. Nevertheless, they have not been successful until this year, after a long time of testing and learning," said Michael Boos, CEO of operation and zoological conservation.
In late March, after more than a month of unusual privacy, Ying Ying began spending more time in the water. Meanwhile, Le Le began leaving a trail of scents around his habitat, actively searching for his companion's smell all the while. On Monday the two were seen cuddling.
The Ocean Park has not received visitors since January because of the pandemic, and these moments of intimacy coincided with the breeding season that occurs every year between March and May. Female pandas enter heat for one to three days, and that's the only window in which the male panda can act.
"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," Boos said. "We hope to bear wonderful pregnancy news to Hong Kongers this year and make further contributions to the conservation of this vulnerable species.”
The fact that they have mated does not mean that Ying Ying is going to get pregnant, but if so, they would begin to notice changes at a hormonal and behavioral level in early June. For now, we will have to wait to see if this pandemic has had its positive side for these giant pandas.
The number of pandas is slowly increasing around the world. In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) removed giant pandas from the "endangered" category due to a 17% increase in the number of pandas between 2004 and 2014.
Nevertheless, they still face many challenges. Deforestation has led to permanent habitat loss in some areas. Wild pandas used to live in bamboo forests in China, Vietnam, Laos and Burma. Today, wild pandas are found only in China, and in far fewer numbers than ever before.