‘Panda ambassador’ hopefuls compete in D.C.

A few had panda jewelry. Some drew the black and white bears on their name tags. Others sported attire that one might expect from semifinalists in a contest to become a world panda ambassador, or “Pambassador.”

Ashley Jaeger, 23, a bioengineering researcher at the National Institutes of Health, had black-and-white panda-colored nails and panda-patterned shoes.

“I thought it was fun and kind of something to set me apart,” she said.

Jaeger is one of 24 semifinalists — one from Brazil, the rest from the United States — competing in Washington at the Omni Shoreham Hotel on Tuesday and Wednesday for a chance to spend a year as a global envoy for wildlife conservation.

Four finalists will be selected Wednesday afternoon to spend nearly a month at the Chengdu Panda Base in China, working to introduce the bears into the wild. Later, the four will compete in Chengdu against 12 other finalists from Britain, Singapore and Chinato be named one of three globe-trotting pambassadors.

Those unofficial diplomats will receive a $20,000 stipend — which could buy a lot of bamboo in tough economic times — and will visit pandas around the world while promoting conservation at the community level. There were 45,000 online applications worldwide for the honor.

The competition’s sponsors, the Chengdu Panda Base and the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization WildAid, are using pandas as the adorable public face of wildlife conservation and endangered species. The contest started in 2010, but it did not take place last year.

WildAid Executive Director Peter Knights said that in the conservation business pandas — with their cute faces and scruffy fur — are far more appealing as spokescreatures than, say, sharks.

“A lot of animals don’t have that going for them,” Knights said. “The panda is an icon for many endangered species.”

Giant pandas are among the rarest animals in the world, according to the National Zoo’s Web site. About 1,600 live in the wild. Another 300 are in zoos and breeding centers around the world, mostly in China.

A cub was born at the National Zoo last month, but died a week later. The cub, born to the zoo’s Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, died of liver failure related to an insufficient supply of oxygen. A necropsy showed that the cub’s lungs were not fully formed.

“I always wanted to see a baby panda in real life,” Jaeger said, adding that she has a large collection of stuffed panda toys. “No other animal has that effect on me.”

Jaeger is hardly alone in her panda fascination.

Ashley Robertson, 27, from Orlando, was one of the 2010 panda ambassadors, even putting her associate’s degree in photography on hold to enter the competition. The contest prize that year was $1,000, and she said she took a loan to pay her bills back home while she traveled to China.

“Honestly, I didn’t have a doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t make it,” she said, adding that she has a rescue mutt named Panda, even though it’s part pit bull and part basset hound. “I didn’t want anything anymore; that’s all that I wanted to do,” she said.

This is the first year that Washington has played a part in the competition. The city was chosen because of the resident pandas at the zoo, who have charmed and entranced the community since the National Zoo received its first Chinese panda visit from Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling in 1972.

The 24 semifinalists were selected after applying online and submitting videos showing their panda enthusiasm. On Tuesday, the semifinalists participated in a relay race — dressed at times as pandas — and made their way through the Woodley Park neighborhood to the National Zoo. On Wednesday, among other activities, they were scheduled to visit Georgetown and the Mall accompanied by people dressed in panda costumes. The goal is to interact with the public about conservation.

In Chengdu, the contests can be more demanding. Finalists in 2010, for example, had to answer panda-related trivia questions and identify eight different types of bamboo.

A semifinalist this year, Melissa Katz, 24, an assistant field hockey coach at American University, first learned of the contest in 2010 but was too busy studying at Monmouth University in New Jersey to enter. She says she has had a stuffed panda since she was born, and her entire childhood bedroom in Tinton Falls, N.J., is decorated with the bears. “My whole life I’ve loved them,” she said.

 
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