Giant panda Tai Shan enjoys a cake during a farewell party at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. on Jan. 30, 2010. Hundreds of fans braved heavy snowfall Saturday to express goodbye to Tai Shan. Tai Shan, born at the National Zoo in 2005, will be carried back to China by a U.S. FedEx cargo plane on Feb. 4.
US-born panda cubs Tai Shan and Mei Lan will leave the United States to China on February 4 on board a special FedEx “Panda Express” flight bound for Chengdu, China.
On the morning of February 4, Tai Shan (aka butterstick) will have a police escort to Dulles international airport where he will board a FedEx’s new Boeing 777F aircraft specially decked out for the occasion with a 40 foot by 40 foot (12 x 12 meter) emblem of a panda painted on either side of the cockpit.
With Tai Shan on board the Panda Express — which normally transports 2,000 pounds (around 1,000 kilograms) of freight — will be one of his handlers from the National Zoo Washington , a veterinarian, and a three-year-old female panda Mei Lan and her entourage from Zoo Atlanta who will be picked up in Atlanta.
Tai Shan and his panda travel partner Mei Lan, will not have the run of the plane but will travel in comfort, without being anesthetized, in crates crafted out of tubular steel.
FedEx has years of experience transporting all sorts of wild animals, from lions to tigers to Tai Shan’s parents, which the global air freight company flew to the United States in 2000, long before Tai Shan was a twinkle in panda conservationists’ eyes. In 1974, FedEx carried a 13-foot tiger shark used in filming the movie Jaws, whilst competitor UPS famously transported Free Willy star Keiko the whale onboard a Hercules C-130 transport aircraft in 1996.
After his 14-and-a-half-hour flight to Chengdu, Tai Shan will travel 2.5 hours by road to Wolong’s Beifengxia nature reserve in Sichuan province, where after spending 30-days in quarantine he will join the breeding program.
Giant panda Tai Shan plays on snow-blanketd ground during a farewell party at the National Zoo in Washington D.C., the United States, Jan. 30, 2010
Tai Shan’s departure for China has been on the cards since the day he was born in 2005, and in fact, under an agreement between the National Zoo and China, he was supposed to have been sent to the fatherland when he turned two.
The Chinese granted Washington an extension, partly because Tai Shan would have been too young, at age two, to enter the panda breeding program in China, but also because of the “huge emotional attachment the American public has for him,” said Don Moore, associate director of animal care at the National Zoo.
But now at age four-and-a-half, the young panda is showing signs that he would welcome being part of a breeding program, not to mention the chance to nibble at more than the four varieties of bamboo that are available to him at his home in Washington.
But that won’t make waving goodbye to him any easier for visitors and staff of the National Zoo.
“It’s like sending your kindergartner off to kindergarten, but this kindergartner isn’t coming back. He’s going to stay in China,” said Moore.
“I’m going to miss him terribly but I always knew this day was coming and we were lucky to have him an extra two-and-a-half years,” said Meese, who has spent almost every day with Tai Shan since his birth in the early hours of July 9, 2005.
“But I’m looking at the more important, big picture and that is that Tai Shan is going to be part of the breeding program, which will help to make sure future generations can enjoy giant pandas,” she said.
Panda Cub Mei Lan from Zoo Atalanta. Mei Lan,” loosely translated, means “Atlanta Beauty.” When she was born, Mei Lan weighed 4 shaky little ounces. She now weighs about 200 pounds.
China to find “language teacher” for panda from U.S.
A panda breeding center in southwest China is looking for a “Chinese language teacher” and a “boyfriend” to welcome a female panda from Zoo Atlanta later this week.
Three-year-old Mei Lan will be flown to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Sichuan Friday from Washington, together with Tai Shan, a 4-year-old male panda from National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
“Mei Lan has been living in the United States since she was born, and she must be unfamiliar with Chinese, especially the Sichuan dialect,” said Huang Xiangming, director of the base’s animal management department.
“So we will find a Chinese language teacher for her, in addition to an exclusive keeper, and help her adapt to her new life faster,” he said.
Meanwhile, the base is asking the public to choose a “boyfriend” for Mei Lan as she had reached mating age, he said.
“We have created web pages on popular Internet portals to post images and introduce Mei Lan and a number of male pandas. We are inviting panda fans to vote for the best ‘boyfriend’ for Mei Lan according to their physical appearance, character, living habits and experts’ suggestions on the match,” he said.
Mei Lan would have to change her diet habits gradually.
“We have asked the American zookeepers to bring Mei Lan’s favorite biscuits, but we will gradually use Chinese ‘wotou’ (steamed bread of corn, sorghum and others) and fresh bamboo to replace biscuits,” Huang said.
Mei Lan would be quarantined for a certain period just like all other pandas arriving from overseas, he said.
Mei Lan has been living at Zoo Atlanta since she was born in September 2006. Her parents Lun Lun and Yang Yang arrived in Atlanta in November 1999.
Tai Shan, who was born in July 2005 and raised at the National Zoo of Washington D.C., will later go to the Ya’an Bifeng Gorge Breeding Base of Wolong National Nature Reserve, another panda breeding center in Sichuan.
Tai Shan was supposed to come to China at the age of two. The Chinese government agreed to postpone its return twice in 2007 and 2009 at the request of the National Zoo.
Tai Shan’s father Tian Tian, 13, and mother Mei Xiang, 12, are due to return to China in December next year.
According to the agreements reached by Chinese and American authorities, giant pandas are only loaned to the United States for scientific studies — such as Mei Lan and Tai Shan’s parents, and all their cubs must also be sent back to China.
Thirteen Chinese giant pandas are in four zoos in the United States.
Giant pandas, known for being sexually inactive, are among the world’s most endangered animals.
About 1,600 giant pandas live in China’s wild, mostly in Sichuan and the northwestern provinces of Shaanxi and Gansu. Another 290 are in captive-breeding programs worldwide, mainly in China.