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Finally, Some Privacy: After 10 Years, Giant Pandas Mate in Shuttered Zoo

HONG KONG — Ying Ying and Le Le, two giant pandas who could never quite get in the mood over 13 years of living together in a Hong Kong zoo, successfully mated on Monday, a rare feat for the famously low-libido species and a cause of celebration in the world of animal conservation.

The coupling of the pandas, animals that have a mating “season” of just a few days per year, lifted hope that the population of the vulnerable species might be about to increase. Whether in captivity or in the wild, giant pandas rarely show the desire or skill to mate, imperiling their survival and making their infrequent romps worthy of acclaim.

Perhaps Ying Ying and Le Le just needed some privacy. Ocean Park shut down on Jan. 26 as part of Hong Kong’s measures to fight the coronavirus, leaving the amusement park and zoo free of its usual throngs of visitors.

“Since Ying Ying and Le Le’s arrival in Hong Kong in 2007 and attempts at natural mating since 2010, they unfortunately have yet to succeed until this year upon years of trial and learning,” said Michael Boos, executive director in zoological operations and conservation at Ocean Park. “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.”

It won’t be known for a while whether the patter of tiny panda paws is on the way. The gestation period is from 72 to 324 days, and ultrasound scans can’t detect a cub until 14 to 17 days before birth, the zoo said.

Ying Ying and Le Le, both 14 years old, had followed the classic song and dance of mating season. Ying Ying had been playing in the water more. Le Le left scent markings around his habitat and searched for Ying Ying’s scent. Typical panda courtship.

Having seen Ying Ying’s hormonal levels change, park officials said they were aware that the pandas had entered the brief window in which they might mate, and they knew Monday morning might be the peak time for action. Park staff members stood by with cameras, capturing some slightly risqué photographs during the event and a romantic-looking cuddle.

(You can follow this link to see video and hear audio of the act, but be warned, you know exactly what you are getting into.)

The difficulties that pandas find in reproducing has contributed to the species becoming vulnerable. In 2014, the Worldwide Fund for Nature estimated that there were only 1,864 giant pandas remaining in the wild.

Pandas have historically been so bad at mating that some zookeepers have even tried showing the animals video footage of other pandas having sex, as a sort of how-to guide.

Females are receptive and fertile for just 24 to 72 hours each year. If a male doesn’t step up then, they have to wait a full year for another chance.