When Hairy Met Sally: Giant pandas finally mate after 13 years of living together

Ying Ying and Le Le have lived together for 13 years, but when it came to having kids, it just never felt like the right time.

At least, that’s what their zookeepers said. The two giant pandas, who have lived at Hong Kong’s Ocean Park since 2007, have had what can only be described as a slow, patient courtship.

The zoo first began trying to mate Ying Ying and Le Le in 2010, when they were 4 years old. Now, at age 14 — at least middle-aged in panda years — the pair finally hooked up.

“Since Ying Ying and Le Le’s arrival in Hong Kong in 2007 … they unfortunately have yet to succeed until this year upon years of trial and learning,” Michael Boos, Ocean Park’s executive director for zoological operations and conservation, told the New York Times. “The successful natural mating process today is extremely exciting for all of us.”

It’s not clear why the couple chose now to finally mate, but they have had plenty of time alone lately. Due to the current global health crisis, Ocean Park shut its doors on Jan. 26, and has remained closed to the public ever since.

And the privacy couldn’t have come at a better time, especially considering that giant pandas have an incredibly brief mating season: Occurring each spring, the period only lasts for about three to four days.

This doesn’t necessarily mean and Ying Ying and Le Le have a cub on the way — the word on that will take at least a few weeks, according to the zoo. But in the meantime, the pandas’ keepers seem thrilled that the long will-they-or-won’t-they has come to an end.

“Ying Ying and her long-standing sweetheart Le Le succeeded in natural mating today!” the zoo’s Facebook page wrote of the news. “Hoping to bring wonderful pregnancy news to you all.”

According to World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), giant pandas are currently designated as a “vulnerable” species, meaning they are not endangered but still face a high risk of eventual extinction.

The WWF estimates that there are a little less than 1,900 giant pandas in the wild today, the majority of which live in the mountains of southwestern China.

One of the issues facing the animals is, in fact, a low sex drive. However, the extent of this problem has been widely disputed, with some experts claiming it only affects pandas held in captivity.

Some scientists have suggested that giant pandas don’t actually lack a sex drive, proposing instead that the species is just somewhat specific about their partners. Thankfully, Ying Ying and Le Le finally decided they were a good fit.

If you liked this story, check out our piece on the tortoise whose sex drive may have saved his entire species.

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