Mark your calendar: Feb. 3 is Tai Shan's last public showing

By Jacqueline E. Trescott and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 26, 2010; B03

After four years, six months and four weeks as the National Zoo's reigning prince of bears, Tai Shan, Washington's beloved giant panda, will leave the place of his birth Feb. 4, Smithsonian Institution officials said Monday.

Nine weeks after the zoo announced that Tai Shan would be heading to China to enter a breeding program, according to a prior agreement with that country, officials have worked out the complex details of his departure, route and exact destination.

Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, calling the news "bittersweet," said Tai Shan will travel on a FedEx flight and be accompanied by a panda from a zoo in Atlanta. The nonstop flight is scheduled to depart from Dulles International Airport early in the morning. An Atlanta zoo spokeswoman said that its panda is a 3-year-old female named Mei Lan.

A huge goodbye bash for Tai Shan is scheduled from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the zoo. Veterinarians, nutritionists and reproductive scientists will talk about the care of Tai Shan and his parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. Partygoers will be able to write panda "memory cards," examine the route Tai Shan will take to China and view a photo showcase of his life since he was born at the zoo four years ago. About 1:30 p.m., zoo officials will give Tai Shan a celebratory treat in his yard.

The zoo announced Dec. 4 that the now-adolescent Tai Shan would be heading to China as part of the agreement that brought his parents to the National Zoo. Various permits and clearances had to be obtained. Transportation had to be arranged, and the route chosen. Tai's destination will be a large panda preserve in Ya'an, Sichuan province, in south-central China.

More details will be announced later in the week.

Tai's last public viewing day will be Feb. 3.

And his fans are heartbroken.

"There has been a lot of emotion," said Frances Nguyen, founder of the local Tai Shan fan club, Pandas Unlimited. "It's like sending off your own child to college."

On the one hand, she said, devotees want him to grow and have offspring of his own, she said. "Nobody wants to see him here by himself, and pacing," she said Monday. At the same time, she added, "a lot of us never thought he would leave."

Nguyen said her group has raised more than $10,000 in recent weeks to "adopt" Tai Shan, in the same way one might send donations to a needy child in a poor country. The donations, made through Pandas International, will help support him for two years, she said, adding that $50,000 would help support him for life.

"They'll send us all certificates," she said. "They'll send us updates and photographs."

It's a way to maintain a connection, she said.

Tai Shan, whose name means "peaceful mountain," was born at the zoo July 9, 2005, and has been adored by legions of zoogoers since his debut that December.

Under the agreements that brought his mother, Mei Xiang, and father, Tian Tian, to the zoo from China, Tai Shan was supposed to have been turned over to China when he turned 2 but was granted two extensions. All three pandas are China's property.

Tai Shan is old enough to breed, and conservationists in China want him in their program to try to increase the population of endangered giant pandas.

The 10-year agreement that brought his parents here Dec. 6, 2000, expires at the end of this year, but the zoo is hoping for an extension.

Meanwhile, zoo experts twice artificially inseminated Mei Xiang this month in the hope that she might produce another cub. Mei Xiang underwent the non-surgical insemination Jan. 9 and 10 after she and Tian Tian unsuccessfully mated, the zoo has said.

Panda reproduction in captivity is complex and difficult, and zoo scientists have only about 48 hours once a year, when the female is in heat, to try to achieve a pregnancy.

The annual Washington panda pregnancy watch is now underway, with even more intensity than ever. "The hope for Mei Xiang to have a panda cub is very high," Nguyen said.

But the wait can last three to six months, the panda gestation period.

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