Hong Kong mourns death of An An, world’s oldest male giant panda

Society & Culture

An An, the longest-living male giant panda in captivity, died at the age of 35 at Hong Kong’s Ocean Park this week. Now eyes are on whether the remaining two pandas at the zoo will successfully breed and bring new cubs to the city.

Visitors write notes to mourn the death of Chinese giant panda An An at Ocean Park in Hong Kong. EYEPRESS via Reuters Connect.

Ān Ān 安安, the bamboo-eating star of Hong Kong’s Ocean Park, where he had won the hearts of locals for his playful nature and shattered records as the world’s longest-living male giant panda under human care, died on Thursday after a steady decline of his health. The news of An An’s death has triggered an outpouring of grief from those who fondly remembered seeing him over the years.

The beloved panda was euthanized at the ripe age of 35 — the equivalent of 105 years in human years — according to a Facebook post announcement by the marine theme park in Hong Kong, where An An had lived since 1999.

An An’s deteriorating health, characterized by a severe decrease in physical activity and appetite, had been a source of concern for zoo staff for a few weeks. His condition worsened last Sunday, when he stopped eating altogether and developed high blood pressure. The panda was kept away from visitors the whole time as he grappled with health problems.

To prevent him from further suffering, the procedure of humane euthanasia was performed at approximately 8:40 a.m. at An An’s home in the Hong Kong Jockey Club Sichuan Treasures at the facility, the park said. 

“An An is an indispensable member of our family and has grown together with the Park. He has also built a strong bond of friendship with locals and tourists alike,” Ocean Park shared in the statement. It added that the difficult decision to put the panda down was made collectively by  Veterinarians from the park and Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department after consultation with the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda.

“We want to express our gratitude to An An for all of the wonderful things he brought the people of Hong Kong and our visitors from around the world, as he was a true ambassador of conservation and educational messaging,” the post continued. 

A cherished gift from Beijing

An An, who was born in 1986 in Sichuan Province, arrived at Ocean Park in 1999 when he and his female companion, Jiā Jiā 佳佳, were gifted to Hong Kong by Beijing on the second anniversary of the city’s handover to Chinese sovereignty. Like An An, Jia Jia was also a notable panda because of age — she was listed as the oldest giant panda living in captivity, male or female, when she passed away at the age of 38 in 2016 after experiencing similar symptoms and difficulties staying active.

“We are truly thankful for the opportunity to take care of Jia Jia and An An throughout the years so that the Park could develop into an important base for panda conservation,” Paulo Pong Kin-Yee (Páng Jiànyí 龐建貽), the chairman of Ocean Park Corporation’s board, said in a press release. “Since this long-living panda duo’s arrival at Ocean Park in 1999, they have supported the Park’s endeavors in promoting nature and ecosystems to visitors as its ambassadors.”

An An celebrating his birthday this year. EYEPRESS via Reuters Connect.

The average life expectancy of giant pandas is below 20 years in the wild, though they can live longer under human care. In 2017, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reclassified the species from “endangered” to “vulnerable” after its population rose nearly 17% since 2014. That move was mirrored by the Chinese government last year after the wild giant panda population increased to 1,800.

This month, Hong Kong marked the 25th anniversary of the return to Chinese sovereignty, with China’s leader, Xí Jìnpíng 习近平, paying a visit to the city and attending the inaugural ceremony of the sixth-term government of Hong Kong, which was largely handpicked by the central government. Xi also delivered a speech emphasizing Beijing’s comprehensive control over the once-British colony under his vision of the “one country, two systems” framework. 

Last week, when An An’s declining health made the news in Hong Kong, the city’s newly elected Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu (李家超 Lǐ Jiāchāo) posted on Facebook, calling on locals to wish the giant panda a speedy recovery. In the wake of An An’s death, Li took to the social media site to share his sadness. “I want to thank Ocean Park for taking care of An An for so many years. I also want to thank the central government and the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda for their continued support,” he wrote. “You will forever be in our hearts, An An. Rest in peace.”

In a practice widely known as “panda diplomacy,” China has loaned out native giant pandas to other countries for more than half a century as a way to forge political friendships across the globe. For most recipients, the standard lease terms include a fee of up to $1 million per year and a provision that any cubs born during the lease period be the property of China — though Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau are allowed to keep baby pandas born on their land. 

Grief and breeding challenges

A family favorite at Ocean Park, An An’s death has been met with an outpouring of grief in Hong Kong. On Facebook, thousands have commented and posted photos in replies to the park’s announcement. “Many happy moments have been spent watching him stroll around. RIP An An. I’ll be forever grateful for the joy you’ve brought me,” a person wrote. Others recalled seeing the chubby bear crush bamboo and other food in an adorable manner. 

At the park, a condolence booth has been set up at An An’s enclosure, where visitors could drop off flowers and leave messages of tribute. The memorial site features a backdrop showing a photo of An An having a meal and a note saying, “Thank you, An An. 1986–2022.” 

Ying Ying and Le Le

Ocean Park, which displays a wide variety of animals, including penguins and dolphins, is now left with two giant pandas, Yíng Yíng 盈盈 and Lè Lè 乐乐, which were gifted by Beijing in 2007. Despite conservationists’ and their caretakers’ wishes, the duo had trouble getting along sexually for more than 10 years — which is normal given that giant pandas, espeically those in captivity, are notoriously finicky about mating. 

But things turned around in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Hong Kong and the park temporarily shut to the public. In April, the park revealed that the two pandas, who were 14 years old at the time, mated naturally for the first time after a decade of attempts. Although Ying Ying didn’t get pregnant, the act itself was widely seen as a crucial step toward successful breeding for the duo.