After eight years of no babies, HK Ocean Park's pandas Ying Ying and Le Le could be sent home to Sichuan to find new mates

After eight years of no babies, HK Ocean Park's pandas Ying Ying and Le Le could be sent home to Sichuan to find new mates

Female Ying Ying has already made the journey once, in 2015

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Giant pandas Le Le and Ying Ying have failed to reproduce during their time in Ocean Park.
Photo: Handout

Two popular giant pandas in Hong Kong who have not had a baby for eight years could be returned to Sichuan province for breeding if they fail to conceive again.

Mainland China experts said sending Ying Ying and Le Le back to Sichuan, where they were born, would offer more potential mates, with 451 captive pandas there.

Matthias Li Sing-chung, CEO of Hong Kong’s Ocean Park, revealed in Sichuan that the theme park and mainland experts were discussing whether to transfer the two pandas to the province to mate. It would be the second time Ying Ying has been sent home for that purpose, after a previous trip in 2015.

Ying Ying's miscarriage in 2015

Since arriving at the park as a gift from Beijing almost 12 years ago, the 13-year-old giant pandas have not been able to reproduce.

“Ying Ying and Le Le have started their oestrus [breeding season]. Under this circumstance, no matter what the discussion result is, I think the chance of sending them back is very low,” Li said in Sichuan on a visit to which the media were invited, adding that the mating season normally ended in May.

If the pair failed to conceive again, returning them to the mainland next year was one option being considered, he said.

Ying Ying and Le Le have been in Hong Kong for 12 years, since being gifted to the city by Beijing.
Photo: Ocean Park

“We hope Ying Ying and Le Le might join the whole mainland panda breeding project,” he said.

Li said experts studied which method would be easiest for the pair to have a baby, including natural mating, and artificial insemination, in Hong Kong.

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Ying Ying and Le Le were presented to the city in 2007 as a gift from the central government to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the handover of the city from the British.

Despite an extensive breeding programme set up for the pair, they have been unable to have a baby. Ying Ying suffered a miscarriage in 2015, and subsequently had three phantom pregnancies.

Sichuan’s Forestry and Grassland Administration supports the idea of relocation, and in November raised the possibility of allowing the pair to breed in Wolong.

Zhang Zhihe, director of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (left), said sending Ying Ying and Le Le back to the mainland could be the answer.
Photo: Kanis Leung/SCMP

When asked about the possibility, Liu Hongbao, the administration’s director general, said while getting pandas pregnant had never been easy, there was a chance that Ying Ying just disliked Le Le.

“Pandas are selective [in mating],” he said.

Female pandas can only get pregnant two to three days each year, usually between February and May, with both sexes picking their partners.

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Zhang Zhihe, director of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, said having a thorough study of the two at the mainland centre could help because officials there had more experience.

“In Hong Kong, they have one single choice, one single partner, so the probability is not that big,” he said.

The top researcher said pandas could give birth at the age of 13, and some on the mainland delivered babies when they were 20 years old.

Kanis Leung was reporting from Sichuan

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