The Current

What the pandemic's 'peace and quiet' could mean for giant pandas mating in captivity

With the facility closed due to COVID-19, two pandas in Hong Kong's Ocean Park Zoo mated for the first time in a decade. Researcher Jim Harkness explains what that could mean for the species.

With their zoo closed due to COVID-19, two pandas in Hong Kong mated for the first time in a decade

Giant panda Ying Ying rests at her enclosure at the Ocean Park at Aberdeen's harbour southwest of Hong Kong on Sept. 11, 2019. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

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For more than a decade, two giant pandas at Hong Kong's Ocean Park Zoo struggled to mate.

"Pandas have a lot of trouble breeding in captivity in zoos, and it may be that all the people gawking at them is one factor contributing to that," said panda researcher Jim Harkness.

But in the past few weeks, without a steady stream of onlookers, staff at the Ocean Park Zoo in Hong Kong have observed Ying Ying and Le Le getting busy

The pair were mating, something that Harkness says is uncommon for the threatened species while in captivity.

The park said if Ying Ying is pregnant, the signs may be observed as early as late June.

Harkness spoke with The Current's Matt Galloway about what it means for conserving the animal.

Here is part of that conversation.

What did you think when you heard that these two pandas had found their mojo after more than a decade?

I was delighted.

Pandas have a lot of trouble breeding in captivity in zoos, and it may be that all the people gawking at them is one factor contributing to that. 

So it is possible that the greater peace and quiet that they've had helped create the mood.

It could well be. There's kind of an unfair knock against giant pandas — that there's some sort of evolutionary dead end or that they're bad at breeding. You might have heard this.

In fact, in some zoos, they'll show videos of pandas mating to other pandas to try to teach them how to breed because there's this notion that they don't understand how mating works.

A giant panda, Le Le, eats bamboo at his enclosure at the Ocean Park at Aberdeen's harbour southwest of Hong Kong in a 2019 file photo. (Amr Abdallah/Reuters)

Like panda pornography or something?

Yes. The famous panda porn. That's actually a real thing.

The fact is, in the wild, in the forest, pandas do very well, thank you very much. They breed at about the same rate as many black bear populations. 

But when they're cooped up in a zoo with people in white coats with clipboards watching them, and tourists and such, their success rate is quite low. And this has always been a challenge for zoo keepers. 

So it could well be that simply giving them a little more peace and quiet has helped out in that respect.

What is the overall health of the species right now?

Well, the numbers have improved over the past couple of decades because of much more strict protection in China. Giant pandas only live in China. And the Chinese government has set aside larger and larger areas to protect them.

Right now, there are about — it's a rough number — between 1,800 and 2,000 pandas living in the wild. And then a couple of hundred more in captivity. And the wild population seems to be stable or growing, but that's still not a high number. 

They've been taken off of the list of most highly endangered species, but they still are a threatened species. 

When I got a couple of feet away, it just reached out its hand, with its paw open, and I flacked the bamboo shoots into it and it immediately began crunching on them.- Jim Harkness on meeting a wild panda

And that's why something like this — a development like this — is so important?

Yes. In the past the temptation would be, 'Well, people want to see pandas and they're not breeding successfully, so maybe we need to take a few more out of the wild so that we have them in zoos.'

And if you can have a self-sustaining population in captivity, then you don't have that risk that pandas might be taken out of the wild. 

The real goal should be to make sure that pandas are left on their own in the forest, and the pandas that are in zoos can really take care of their own population replenishment. 

What are the benefits of keeping them in zoos, keeping anything in zoos?

There are certainly different viewpoints on that. I think that the principal benefit really is public education and giving people sort of an emotional connection to these large, rare animals that only live in extremely remote habitats.

It's very unlikely that somebody in Toronto or Vancouver is ever going to see a panda in the wild. I've only seen a panda in the wild once, about 25 years ago, despite having studied and worked on their conservation for much of my life.

So the idea that people can form that sort of emotional bond with them is going to, one would hope, make people more interested in conserving them. And I think that's really the main reason. 

People sometimes say, 'Well, if we have a captive population, then we can breed pandas and release them back into the wild,' and there's really no evidence that that can be successful right now. 

Jim Harkness, a panda researcher and National Geographic's country director for China, met this wild panda in July 1994. It is the only time he has seen a panda in the wild. 'Don't try this at home,' he said. (Submitted by Jim Harkness)

What was it like as somebody you said, you know, has spent much of your life in this world and has studied and worked in conservation for a long time. What was it like when you saw the giant panda in the wild?

Oh, I was sort of in shock. Some researchers had actually put a radio collar on a young panda ... and even with a radio collar, it took us the better part of a day in these very steep, 45-degree angle mountains within dense bamboo habitat to finally track down this individual.

It was lying on its back and pulling up bamboo shoots and just chewing on them the way that you might do on a celery stick. And I thought we would just watch it from a distance. 

But the researchers I was with pulled up a bunch of bamboo shoots and put them in my hand and said, 'Offer them to the panda.'

Oh, my goodness.

So I crawled forward — and these are bears, so it's got a big head and big teeth. And when I got a couple of feet away, it just reached out its hand, with its paw open, and I flacked the bamboo shoots into it and it immediately began crunching on them. 

And, yes, my heart was in my throat and it was even more so, about 30 seconds later, [when] that big paw came back empty again. 

So we quickly grabbed some more and put them in. 

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Padraig Moran. Produced by Jessica Linzey.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


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