“An An is an indispensable member of our family and has grown together with the park. He has also developed strong friendships with locals and tourists alike,” said Paulo Pong, Ocean Park’s chairman. “We will miss his cleverness and playfulness very much.”
Ocean Park set up a sympathy booth at the panda enclosure, where staff laid white flowers to say goodbye to their fluffy friend. Guest books were also placed in the conservatory for visitors to pay tribute to An An.
“To An, you have brought so many fond memories to everyone,” Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee wrote in a statement shared on social media. “You are still with us in our hearts, rest in peace.”
China, Malaysia and the strange world of panda diplomacy
Born in China’s Sichuan province, An An was a gift from the Chinese central government to Hong Kong in 1999 – a soft-power symbol of the city’s deepening ties with Beijing, two years after Hong Kong’s return from 156 years of colonial rule . China, where the giant panda originated and where it has become a national symbol, practices panda diplomacy and gives away the beloved creatures around the world.
An An arrived in the city with Jia Jia, his mate, who died in 2016 at the age of 38. A Washington Post editor recalls singing with a group of children at a welcoming ceremony for the couple. They became something of an obsession in Hong Kong, with their every act being streamed live.
Since the turn of the century, thousands of locals and tourists have visited the theme park’s panda conservatory to catch a glimpse of An An and Jia Jia bathing in rock pools or munching on loose bamboo shoots. When temperatures rose, the pair sunned themselves in private, air-conditioned enclosures.
The average life expectancy of a wild panda is 14 to 20 years, but they can live much longer in captivity, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
In 2007, Beijing gave Hong Kong two more pandas, Ying Ying and Le Le, in hopes they would father offspring as pandas are increasingly threatened with extinction. About 1,800 pandas live in the wild.
Ying Ying and Le Le did not mate for 13 years (captive pandas are notoriously uninterested in breeding unless conditions are right) until the coronavirus pandemic struck and the park was temporarily closed to the public in spring 2020. Pictures of the two mating have made headlines around the world. In September 2020, Ocean Park announced that while Ying Ying was showing signs of pregnancy, she was not pregnant.
“We hope that Ying Ying and Le Le will naturally mate again in the next breeding season,” said Michael Boos, Executive Director of Zoological Operations and Conservation at Ocean Park, at the time.