The Romantic Woes of the Giant Panda

Quick thoughts on some cute bears with terrible game

THE ROMANTIC WOES of captive giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) are legendary. Picture it: the iconic emblem of wildlife conservation in pudgy silhouette, idly munching through a pile of bamboo. Nearby, a frenzied cadre of international matchmakers armed with round-the-clock cameras, urine test kits, and stacks of money are desperate for offspring, adorable babies for adorable memes. The fate of the species hangs in the balance. What may at first sound like a win-win scenario can be, for all parties, an uphill climb: females ovulate just once a year for only a few days, and captive males are often gameless bumblers who have literally no idea what they’re doing.

Recent research indicates one explanation for their reproductive underperforming comes down to a simple lack of attraction. In the wild, a female panda has the opportunity to choose between prospective suitors based on a range of alluring qualities and competitive male feats. But orchestrated captive breeding tends to overlook romantic chemistry in favor of preferred genetic outcomes in a dating pool of one, even employing such extreme measures as bear Viagra and panda porn to set the mood. Can we really fault them for not rising to the occasion?

Experiments show captive panda pairs were more than twice as likely to make babies if the female was given a choice of partner. Turns out that even on the edge of extinction, some of us maintain our standards.

This piece is from Orion’s Winter 2023 issue, Romance in the Climate Crisis. Special thanks to the NRDC for their generous funding of this issue.

Kathleen Yale is Orion‘s digital editor and the author of the award-winning children’s book Howl Like a Wolf! and the game Guess My Animal! which both combine ecology, animal behavior, and imagination to engage children in creative play. She’s a former scriptwriter for the educational programs SciShow and Crash Course, and prior to that worked as a wildlife field biologist. She lives outside of Glacier National Park, with her family.