The quiet times caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have been good for a pair of giant pandas at a Hong Kong zoo. So good, in fact, that in early April, they mated successfully for the first time after sharing the same enclosure for 13 years.

The giant panda, native to just a few mountain ranges in central China, is dwindling as a species, mostly due to farming-driven deforestation. Studies estimate the population in the wild as high as 3,000, but most estimates place it around 1,800 individuals. Despite this, in 2016 the International Union for Conservation of Nature downgraded their status from “endangered” to the less-urgent “vulnerable.”

Approximately 400 giant pandas live in zoos or conservation facilities today, and every single one of them belongs to the Chinese government. Around 50 individual bears are housed in zoos outside of China, each paying leasing fees to the Chinese government. They are considered to be the most expensive terrestrial animal to house, largely due to these fees.

The pandas are notoriously difficult to breed. Females only enter estrus for one to three days a year, and males are rarely interested at the same time. Captive breeding is currently considered to the best hope for the species. There’s been reasonable success with artificial insemination, but natural mating has been proven to lead to a much higher rate of live births.

“Since Ying Ying and Le Le’s arrival in Hong Kong in 2007, and attempts at natural mating since 2010, they unfortunately [had] yet to succeed until this year upon years of trial and learning. The successful natural mating process … is extremely exciting for all of us, as the chance of pregnancy via natural mating is higher than by artificial insemination,” said Michael Boos, director of zoological operations at Ocean Park Zoo.

Maybe the peace and quiet was all the pair needed. Normally, Ocean Park Zoo sees around 7.7 million visitors a year, but park has been closed to visitors since January 26, 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is, of course, no guarantee that Ying Ying has conceived from just one session, but her caretakers have their fingers crossed and will be monitoring her closely over the course of the next six months. Panda pregnancies, which are never obvious from the outside, last between 95 and 160 days, and are as likely to produce twins as a single birth.

Photo: A giant panda. Credit: Shutterstock