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Thursday, October 8, 2015, 08:12

Ocean Park flayed after panda miscarriage

By Kahon Chan in Hong Kong

Ocean Park flayed after panda miscarriage
Giant panda Ying Ying is seen in a new giant panda habitat at the Hong Kong Ocean Park, Hong Kong, July 30 , 2007. (AFP PHOTO / POOL)

The miscarriage of panda Ying Ying has dashed the chances of Hong Kong having its first locally born panda — while Ocean Park’s committed push for the 10-year-old bear’s pregnancy sparked concerns from animal rights activists.

Ocean Park welcomed the city’s first pair of pandas in March 1999. The marine theme park attracted international attention in July when Jia Jia, now 37, became the world’s oldest panda in captivity. The older bear is a mother of six, but has been too old to give birth since her arrival.

Ying Ying, part of the pair loaned by the central government in 2007 to Hong Kong, has since been tasked with the mission to bear cubs. Ocean Park announced her pregnancy on National Day at a press conference.

According to the theme park, she was flown to Sichuan in February to participate in the national breeding program for the first time and mated once with a male panda after five attempts. She also underwent artificial insemination to “maximize her chances of pregnancy”.

But in the statement, the park’s veterinarian Lee Foo-khong had already warned Ying Ying may resorb the fetus — a phenomenon not fully understood by scientists.

This fear has now occurred. Lee reported the news at a press conference on Wednesday, explaining that the fetus was “no longer growing and no heartbeat was detected”. An ultrasound image taken on Wednesday morning showed the fetus had been resorbed, but the team of experts was unable to pinpoint the cause.

Ocean Park flayed after panda miscarriage
Giant panda Ying Ying (on the screen) eats at the Ocean Park, Hong Kong, Oct 7, 2015. (Edmond Tang / China Daily)

Howard Wong Kai-hay, executive director of professional veterinary education and development at City University of Hong Kong, explained that fetal resorption happens on all viviparous animals. Causes include poor physical conditions.

Pregnancy in giant pandas is known to be difficult. Tian Tian, a resident of Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, has suffered similar hardship in the past two years. Lin Hui in Chiang Mai Zoo, Thailand, also had a miscarriage after over 100 days of pregnancy. Both zoos have continued to make attempts for artificial pregnancy.

Ocean Park was not giving up either. Howard Chuk Hau-chung, senior curator for terrestrial life sciences, assured the public that Ying Ying should have about another eight years to make pregnancy attempts. He suggested making another breeding attempt during her short heat period next spring.

The national breeding program was launched in 1986 to diversify the gene pool of captive pandas. But Betty Lau Hin, a core member of animal rights activist group Dolphin Family, expressed doubts about Ocean Park’s reasons for wanting to have the first Hong Kong-born panda.

The opponent of animal captivity felt it was inappropriate for the marine park to make pregnancy attempts before fully determining Ying Ying’s fitness for this. “Are they really doing it for conservation, or to create one more attraction to draw more visitors?” she queried.

Mainland visitors to the theme park were down 15 percent over the summer holiday season. In anticipation of the panda cub, the park has reportedly designed stuffed toys, special restaurant menus and other merchandise. A newspaper also reported park management saying they anticipated a rebound of local visitors.

According to some studies, pandas in the wild actually have a higher rate of pregnancy, probably because of a wider choice of breeding partners.

Ying Ying is still under the effect of maternal hormone changes even though her baby was lost. She will remain quarantined from public view for the time being. Experts from the Wolong National Nature Reserve in Sichuan will continue to oversee her care.

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