Giant pandas

Black-and-white diplomacy

For decades, China’s giant pandas have served as goodwill ambassadors while winning the hearts of millions

August 7-13, 2017
 in Hong Kong

How can a diplomat who spends all day eating and sleeping manage to win over people from all around the world? For the black-and-white cuddly creature in question the answer is easy — simply be cute.

The irresistible charm of China’s national treasure, the giant panda, was borne out again in June when the Japanese public became transfixed on Shin Shin and her newborn cub at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo.

China introduced “panda diplomacy” in the 1950s, presenting 23 pandas as diplomatic goodwill gifts to nine countries from 1957 to 1982.

However, because of the panda’s endangered situation, China subsequently launched the “on-loan” system in 1984.

This enables overseas zoos to borrow pairs of Chinese pandas for either 10 or 15 years, with an annual fee of $1 million per pair, as a part of international cooperative projects in giant panda breeding. The money is used to fund conservation and breeding programs for giant pandas.

Since then, zoos in 16 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the Netherlands, have borrowed pandas.

In Asia, eight zoos in six countries have received this honor, including three zoos in Japan, and one zoo each in South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Australia.

Japan’s Shin Shin and her mate Ri Ri, for example, have been on loan from China since February 2011, upon Japan’s request for new pandas after the death of Ling Ling, gifted to Ueno Zoo in 1992.

And wherever they go, the gentle giants attract fans.

Take Takahiro Takauji, a 39-year-old Web designer, who has been visiting Ueno Zoo every day since August 2011 to take photos for his Everyday Panda (Mainichi Panda) blog. Takauji said he could hardly wait for when Shin Shin’s cub is ready for public viewing.

“Their ‘doing-things-their-own-way’ attitude is just so lovely. I used to be physically fragile, but I have gained strength and become mentally strong as well due to my daily visits to the zoo. Pandas gave me confidence,” he told China Daily Asia Weekly.

In Thailand, a reality TV station named The Panda Channel provided nearly three years of around-the-clock coverage of the pandas at Chiang Mai Zoo until October 2012.

Each ‘panda loan’ typically marks a milestone in bilateral relations between China and the host country. For example, Malaysia received two pandas from China in 2014 to commemorate 40 years of diplomatic ties.

“They come to Malaysia as a symbol of the friendly relations between China and Malaysia,” said Huang Huikang, China’s ambassador to the country, at the unveiling of the pandas in Kuala Lumpur.

“They are also a special envoy of the Chinese people to better promote understanding and close cooperation between our two great countries.”

Or, as Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak put it, they are “symbols of peace”.

South Korea’s Everland Resort uses smartphone apps and 360-degree screens in its Panda World enclosure to provide an immersive and high-tech visiting experience.  Provided to China Daily Asia Weekly

In 2012, when panda couple Kai Kai and Jia Jia landed in Singapore to mark the country’s 20 years of ties with China, they received rock-star treatment from the cheering crowds who turned out at the airport and zoo to welcome them.

Besides being China’s goodwill ambassadors, pandas also represent a huge revenue windfall for host countries.

Economists see the animals as a “good investment” as they bring in hordes of visitors — and even more so if they give birth to cubs during their stay.

Katsuhiro Miyamoto, professor emeritus at the Osaka-based Kansai University, told The Japan Times newspaper that Shin Shin’s delivery will boost Tokyo’s economy by 26.7 billion yen ($240 million) a year. He estimated 5.66 million visitors will visit Ueno Zoo this year, up 47.2 percent from 3.8 million in 2016.

Everland Resort, the biggest amusement park in South Korea, has seen a huge jump in visitor numbers since panda couple Le Bao and Ai Bao arrived on a 15-year lease in March 2016.

With approximately 3 million visitors to the park’s Panda World every year, Everland has developed its own unique ways to attract the crowds.

“The young generation is familiar with information technology but they are relatively less familiar with nature these days,” said Kang Cher-won, a panda keeper at the park.

Kang explained how Everland uses IT to promote the conservation of endangered animals, including giant pandas, to young people.

Its Panda World enclosure features smartphone apps and 360-degree screens to provide an immersive and high-tech visiting experience.

An interactive game called Smile Battle is hugely popular, with visitors competing on screens for their own “smile score”, which reminds one of the smiling face of the giant panda.

“Many young visitors and children are using our interactive kiosks to learn about giant pandas and have grown to like them,” said Kang.

At the same time, it is a huge undertaking to look after the Chinese “diplomats”.

South Australia’s Adelaide Zoo, home to the southern hemisphere’s only two pandas, Wang Wang and Fu Ni, finds it especially challenging.

Adelaide is the driest state capital in Australia, with an annual average rainfall of just 549 millimeters, compared with more than 1,800 mm in Ya’an city, in Southwest China’s Sichuan Province. Ya’an is home of the China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Pandas (CCRCGP), where the two pandas came from.

Speaking to China Daily Asia Weekly, senior panda keeper Simone Davey said that Adelaide Zoo has many special facilities in place for the pandas to acclimatize. These include humidity radars, waterfalls and “chilled rocks”, where cold water is pumped underneath fake rocks for the pandas to keep cool.

To meet the pandas’ dietary needs, the zoo built a 9-hectare bamboo plantation and has a full-time horticulturist dedicated to feeding Wang Wang and Fu Ni and the red pandas who share the same exhibition area. (Despite their name, red pandas are not closely related to giant pandas.)

In the beginning, the zoo also involved the public to help expand the bamboo variety for the pandas. The horticulturist contacted home gardeners who had grown bamboo and then transplanted it in the zoo’s bamboo plantation.

The zoo can now supply a minimum of six to seven different bamboo species to the pandas daily on a self-sufficient basis. A panda’s daily diet consists almost entirely of the leaves, stems and shoots of various bamboo species.

Bamboo, a native plant in China, is mainly found in Sichuan, Hunan and some other regions and contains little nutritional value. Therefore, pandas must eat at least 12 to 38 kilograms every day to meet their energy needs. An average adult panda weighs around 100 kg.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), about 1 percent of the panda’s diet consists of other plants and even meat.

South Korea’s Everland provides as much as 50 kg of bamboo to each panda, which is a total of 36,500 kg per year.

“In order to meet all the other nutritional requirements, our zookeeper makes the bread known as wotou with a recipe from (China’s) CCRCGP,” Kang said, adding that fresh carrots and apples are provided along with the bamboo.

Because all giant pandas are loaned on a research basis, overseas zoos that house them need to send detailed reports regularly to China.

Davey at Adelaide Zoo said the reports are extremely detailed — from listing the pandas’ activity level and correlating it with the temperature, to the proportion of food that they eat. Normally, there will be three to four internal reports and a main one with all the details going back to China monthly.

Everland works with Seoul National University for further research, as well as with WWF-Korea to raise awareness of the once-endangered giant panda.

A year and a half since the arrival of Le Bao and Ai Bao, Kang, the panda keeper, is looking forward to seeing them grow healthily and expects them to become the animals that visitors want to see the most.

“We hope to see them having cubs in the future as they are the epitome of the cuteness of the panda,” said Kang.

When that happens, the furry diplomats will once again have worked their magic.

Cai Hong in Tokyo contributed to the story.

Panda power Found throughout China's southern and eastern provinces, the vulnerable species is considered a national treasure

August 7-13, 2017
 in Hong Kong

Native to China, the giant panda is considered a national treasure. The species was once found throughout the southern and eastern provinces, but due to expanding human populations and development, it is now restricted to around 20 isolated patches of bamboo forests in six mountain ranges. These locations are in the provinces of Sichuan in the southwest, and Shaanxi and Gansu in the northwest.

China now boasts a network of 67 panda reserves. The latest census in 2014 found that 1,864 giant pandas were living in the wild, an increase of 17 percent in the past decade. Another survey released in February 2015 found that China had 375 pandas living in captivity.

Due to China’s forest protection and reforestation efforts, in September 2016 the giant panda was downgraded from endangered to vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature on the global list of species at risk of extinction.

The average life span of captive pandas is 25 to 30 years while those in the wild are said to live for up to 20 years. Basi, the world’s oldest panda living in captivity, celebrated her 37th birthday this year in the eastern Fujian province.

The World Wildlife Fund, an organization dedicated to protecting the future of nature, has used the giant panda in its iconic black-and-white logo since 1961.

Lessons from a ‘lucky’ panda Adelaide Zoo’s aptly named female bear lives the good life while providing researchers with valuable insight into the species

August 7-13, 2017
 in Hong Kong

Being the only female giant panda in the southern hemisphere, life for Fu Ni (which means “lucky girl” in Chinese) could have been tough. Instead she has lived up to her Chinese name, due to the meticulous care of Adelaide Zoo in Australia.

Fu Ni was sent to South Australia in 2009 on a 10-year loan from China, together with her mate Wang Wang. The transfer was part of the international giant panda research, conservation and breeding program designed to preserve this vulnerable species.

The two pandas were in almost cub-like condition when they first arrived, according to Simone Davey, a senior panda keeper at Adelaide Zoo. Davey accompanied the two cuddly envoys all the way from the China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Pandas in Ya’an City, Southwest China’s Sichuan province. She also trained in China to care for the animals.

Fu Ni arrived in Adelaide at the age of 3, one year younger than her male partner. This is because male pandas usually become sexually mature one year later than females.

“Being in the southern hemisphere, their breeding season is six months opposite to every other panda in the world,” Davey said.

This way, she added, the young pandas can better develop — naturally and hormonally — into adults in order to become a breeding pair. “That’s a big learning curve for everybody.”

According to Adelaide Zoo, housing the only pair of giant pandas in the southern hemisphere has led to a completely new set of scientific data, highlighting how the environment affects the panda’s nutritional requirements and reproductive biology.

Fu Ni is the only panda in the world that enters her estrous cycle in September and October — pandas in the northern hemisphere come into the breeding season between March and May.

The estrous season of a female panda only comes once a year, and Fu Ni has an extremely short window of fertility, lasting approximately 36 hours a year, which makes the chance of breeding even smaller.

But what she suffers lasts a lot longer than just 36 hours.

According to Davey, female pandas are very sensitive to hormone changes and Fu Ni’s behavior is greatly affected by the seasons changing from winter to spring.

“She could get quite active. She would climb a lot, (be) less interested in the keeping staff, and more interested in her own things. She will do a lot of walking around and scent marking,” said Davey, adding that this “personality” difference could last for two months.

“She then transits into either a true pregnancy or a pseudo pregnancy. Either one affects her in the same way.”

As the gestation of female pandas is between 95 and 160 days, Davey pointed out that Fu Ni is affected by her hormones around nine months of the year. During this time she will become very hungry and show symptoms of drowsiness or make a nest before she goes back to being her normal self.

“It would be very tough being a female panda,” said Davey, half in jest.

Despite all of that, Fu Ni is still a happy panda and is well taken care of by Adelaide Zoo.

“Even though she is almost 11, she is quite playful and a lot of fun. Even today, she has been running around, playing, chasing with us up and down in the corridor,” Davey said. The average life span of captive pandas is 25 to 30 years, which means Fu Ni is well into adulthood.

Besides building a specially designed captivity area that simulates the environment of the panda’s hometown in Sichuan, Adelaide Zoo provides various activities for its pandas, including different toys and stimuli to keep them energetic and happy.

Fu Ni, the only female giant panda in the southern hemisphere, celebrating her 10th birthday on Aug 28 last year. Provided to China Daily Asia Weekly

According to the zoo, Fu Ni loves any form of enrichment that involves a food reward, especially apple, pear and panda cake. Her laid-back partner Wang Wang enjoys scent-based enrichment and loves getting a big cardboard box filled with fresh sawdust and rolling around in it.

“Our pandas really love scented bubbles. Fu Ni’s favorite scented bubble is chocolate chip flavor, and Wang Wang loves strawberry and cream. So we give them a lot of stimulus like that,” Davey said.

“We try to make their days (full of) fun every day.”

Adelaide is in the driest state in Australia with a very limited variety of bamboo types, which Fu Ni and Wang Wang are not greatly interested in. The zoo initially had to fly in bamboo every week from Queensland and Northeast Australia, but that is not the case anymore.

According to Davey, each day the two pandas will have at least six or seven different types of bamboo to choose from, which are specially grown in the zoo’s own bamboo plantation by its full-time horticulturist.

But the pair are so picky that the zoo still keeps in contact with different bamboo suppliers across the country to satisfy their cravings.

“They are amazing animals, I feel very privileged to have such a good relationship with them,” Davey said, adding that she is impressed by how intelligent the pandas are, and how they interact and connect with the keepers.

“(They are) very lovely and smart animals to work with.”

The duo has been in Australia for almost eight years, but there has been no good news yet as far as cubs are concerned.

Davey said that Fu Ni goes through pregnancy or pseudo pregnancy once every year based on her identical behavior changes. “We do suspect that (there was) at least one reabsorption, and the others are potentially pseudo pregnancies.”

Fetal reabsorption is not uncommon in giant pandas. In 2014, female panda Tian Tian in Edinburgh Zoo lost her cub, which was also believed to have been reabsorbed by the mother.

With Australia’s rejuvenating springtime just around the corner, Fu Ni may yet give panda lovers more reason to celebrate.

France awaits delivery of twin cubs Experts are on standby for the imminent arrival of the first pandas to be born in the country

August 7-13, 2017
By FU JING in Brussels

Chinese panda Huan Huan, who is on loan to France, is expecting twin cubs, according to the zoo, which revealed the results of a medical examination exclusively to China Daily on Aug 1. They will be France’s first baby pandas.

The excitement follows the recent discovery that 9-year-old Huan Huan was pregnant following artificial insemination. She has been receiving care from a team of experts at ZooParc de Beauval in central France, about 200 kilometers south of Paris.

“It is very difficult to know exactly when the babies will be born,” said Delphine Delord, the zoo’s communications director. “My colleagues told me it will be on Friday (Aug 4) or Saturday, but we are waiting. Maybe it will be a little bit earlier or later. We still do not know exactly when.”

Veterinarian Antoine Leclerc (right) shows the heart of one panda baby on a monitor during an exam; Huan Huan sleeps in her enclosure at the French zoo. Credit: AFP

Delord said one French expert and two from China are sleeping next to Huan Huan’s enclosure in preparation for the birth. The zoo has formed a team of at least 10 people to help with the birth.

She said Huan Huan is off her food and has begun to lose weight, something that is normal for a panda in the final days of a pregnancy.

“Now, she only eats bamboo, and sometimes apple,” Delord said.

She said her team has access to panda milk brought in from China.

They do not yet know the gender of the cubs. The zoo will follow tradition and wait for China to name them.

Delord confirmed that Brigitte Macron, France’s first lady, is expected to become the cubs’ “godmother” soon after their birth.

“I feel very excited because these are the first babies of Huan Huan and the first pandas to be born in France,” Delord said. “It is a very important birth. After the babies come, we will contact the first lady.”

Xiang Chen in Brussels contributed to this story.

Happy result from new breeding approach Cub in Sichuan is the first to be born to a captive mother and wild male in plan to improve panda gene pool

August 7-13, 2017
in Chengdu

The first panda cub produced by mating a female raised in captivity with a wild male was born in Southwest China’s Sichuan province in the early hours of July 31.

The cub weighed 216 grams, much heavier than the average 150 grams for a newborn, according to Zhang Hemin, deputy executive director of the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda at the Wolong National Nature Reserve in Sichuan province.

Cao Cao, the mother, is 16 years old (equivalent to 48 in human years) and considered old for giving birth, he said.

She had been raised in captivity and was released into the wild at the center’s Hetaoping base on March 1 in time for the panda mating season, which runs from March to May.

A newborn panda cub is examined in Chengdu, Southwest China’s Sichuan province, on July 31. The mother, Cao Cao, who was raised in captivity, mated with a wild male. It is the first time such a union has produced offspring. Credit: Li Chuanyou / For China Daily

In March, several male pandas were seen fighting for the right to mate with her, and researchers at the center began checking data every five days sent by the GPS tag on her neck — which was fitted with a recording device.

When they checked the recording on March 27, they heard her making noises that female pandas make while mating. The mating, which might have taken place on March 23, lasted 1 minute and 30 seconds, Zhang said.

Cao Cao was born in the wild but was rescued and taken to the center at age 2 after she was found in poor health inside the reserve. Before giving birth on July 31, she had already given birth to six cubs.

Two of the six are well-known to panda fans — male Tao Tao and female Zhang Xiang. Both have been released into the wild in the Liziping Nature Reserve in Sichuan.

Tao Tao was 2 years old when released into the wild in 2012, and Zhang Xiang was the same age when released in 2013.

With the goal of enlarging the wild panda population, the center has released seven captive pandas in Liziping since 2006. Five are faring well, including Tao Tao and Zhang Xiang.

The center used to capture wild pandas for research and reproduction purposes, but since the early 1990s, the government has banned this practice.

As a result, captive pandas have had to mate with their captive peers. As the number of captive pandas is limited, this might result in inbreeding and is not good for biodiversity.

The center formulated a plan last year under which captive pandas could mate with wild ones, and Cao Cao was the first captive panda chosen. The objective is to improve the gene pool of captive pandas.

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