ANYTHING BUT THE BEAR NECESSITIES FOR HONG KONG’S PANDAS
The animal trainers at Ocean Park have learned to be creative to ensure that their three special guests remain on top form. reports.
From the moment he steps out, you can see he’s a star. Le Le, the 125-kilo male giant panda who presides over the panda house at Hong Kong’s Ocean Park, has a flair for showmanship.
He climbs the rockery, glides down the gentle slopes and gestures that he wants to play with his toys; one might think he was born to stand in front of a camera.
In zoological circles, it’s widely believed that behind every successful panda, there must be a good trainer. But that hardly seems the correct word because Matt Leung Ka-lun, a terrestrial life-science supervisor, doesn’t conduct any training. Instead, he is content to take notes.
While tourists happily snap photos of Le Le eating bamboo shoots, Leung observes just how much the panda eats, which side of his jaw he uses to chew and other important clues about his health.
“Observation is a priority in my job. It plays an important role in helping to better attend to the pandas,” he said.
Leung previously noticed that Ying Ying, Le Le’s female companion, only chewed with the left side of her jaw. After several examinations, the park’s vets discovered that the teeth on the right side of her jaw were decayed, and set about fixing the problem: “To prevent further decay and to minimize the impact on her diet, we treated the affected area with fillings. She can now chew on both sides.”
The Hong Kong native has been with the park since 2010, when he returned from the United States with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. His first job was looking after An An and Jia Jia, the park’s senior pandas, which were sent as conservation ambassadors by the central government to mark the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in 1997.
The average lifespan for giant pandas is 14 to 20 years in the wild, and 25 to 30 years in captivity, but Jia Jia was euthanized on Oct 16 at the age of 38 — the equivalent of 114 human years — after her health deteriorated rapidly. At the time, she was the oldest panda in captivity.
“She had been living with typical geriatric conditions; high blood pressure, arthritis and cataracts in both eyes,” Leung said.
Sometimes, Jia Jia refused to take her medication, so Leung spent hours at her side, letting her play with her favorite toys and gently urging her to take her medicine.
In addition to a daily diet of bamboo, vegetables and high-fiber biscuits to complement Jia Jia’s medical treatment, the team invented new ways of coaxing her to take medication.
“We mixed it with her favorite drinks — soy milk and prune juice — or we fed her pears and apples before the medicine. We called the fruits ‘appetizers’,” Leung said. “Those were the most memorable moments, ones I will cherish for the rest of my life.”
In September, Leung became the main caregiver for Ying Ying and Le Le, who were presented as a gift to mark the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China in 2007. The pandas were born in 2005, so Leung refers to them as “the kids”.
“They are energetic and adventurous. Ying Ying likes to climb trees and sleep in the highest branches. We seldom trim her claws because she trims them herself during her climbs. Le Le is fond of prowling the panda house, playing with water and looking for toys we hide for him to find,” Leung said.
In winter, the area around the panda house is covered with artificial snow as the park attempts to mimic the natural environment of Sichuan province, where pandas originate. The temperature is adjusted to approximate the Sichuan climate and the trainers even spray mist and smoke.
Leung’s working day begins at 8:30 am, when he prepares the pandas’ staple meal of bamboo shoots. An An consumes around 7 kg of bamboo a day, while the younger pandas eat about 27 kg between them.
Leung also makes snacks consist- Profiles
The pandas living at Ocean Park were gifts from the central government, brought from the mainland to mark anniversaries of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
Jia Jia Jia Jia was euthanized in October at the age of 38 — equivalent to 114 human years. She reached near-iconic stature in Hong Kong’s popular culture during the 17 years she spent at the park, and people still leave bouquets and cards near a monument erected in her memory. Ying Ying and Le Le: The task of producing Hong Kong’s first panda cub rests on the shoulders of Ying Ying and Le Le, both age 11, but so far, efforts to get them to mate successfully have not borne fruit. Ying Ying has been put in the same mating enclosure as Le Le on three occasions, but attempts to conceive failed. Fresh semen from Le Le and frozen semen from a panda at the Wolong National Nature Reserve, Sichuan province, was used to artificially inseminate Ying Ying, who conceived in May. There were no clues to indicate the identity of the father. Ying Ying had a miscarriage 130 days into her pregnancy. Knowledge of pandas is gained through daily observation and interaction — more haste, less speed.” Matt Leung Ka-lun, main caregiver for pandas Ying Ying and Le Le at Ocean Park
Ying Ying: born free in 2005 Age: 11 Age when brought to Hong Kong: 2 Distinguishing feature: eyes shaped like the number 8 Likes: sleeping in tree tops, doing a balancing act, walking on branches and bending backwards. Sex: female Weight: 100 kg