Wild pandas have been caught mating on film for the first time – and it’s not pretty

Our love of pandas has helped these cute and fuzzy giants bounce back from dwindling numbers. But despite all the attention we’ve showered them with and the intense research and effort to get them to breed, no one had ever managed to film how this happens in the wild. Until now.

It took a three year trek through China’s Qinling mountains and close collaboration between filmmakers, park rangers and scientists to capture the world-first footage of giant panda’s (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) courtship and mating in the wild.

“Over the mating season, their territory greatly overlaps and they travel for tens of kilometres a day in search of the right mate,” filmmaker Jacky Poon told PBS. “Their calls would echo the whole mountain.”

The footage may provide a long-sought clue to why it’s been so challenging to get pandas to breed in captivity.

The video reveals intense competition between two pursuing males – including ferocious grumbling moans, scent marking and squabbles with each other and the female. The males also hold the female ‘hostage’ at times, as the spring snow descends around them.

Their disturbing courtship lasted an entire week before the female was ready to mate, which suggests these behaviours may trigger the female’s ovulation. Circumstances not so easy to emulate in captivity.

“It’s similar in other bear species,” the narrator explains.

And this isn’t the first time a threesome of this usually solitary and highly territorial species has been observed in the wild – the first observation was noted in detail back in 1981, again with two males in pursuit of a female. 

Research has also suggested when pandas get to choose between partners in captivity their dalliances are twice as successful.

Who can blame them for wanting options?

The footage forms part of a PBS documentary Nature – Pandas: Born to Be Wild.

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