For Tai Shan, voyage to China is a trip to obscurity and sex

Tai Shan, the adolescent giant panda who has been a beloved symbol of Washington, D.C. for the past four years, left town Thursday morning for China.
SOURCE: | The Washington Post - February 5, 2010
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 5, 2010

BIFENGXIA PANDA BASE, CHINA -- Gone are the days of custom-made birthday cakes, waterfalls and fans cheering his every move. When Tai Shan the giant panda lands in his ancestral homeland Friday, he will abruptly give up his celebrity status.

In the United States, Tai Shan was special, the only baby panda to survive past infancy in the nation's capital.

But at the panda center in the lush mountains of south-central China, he will be just one of 150. His purpose will no longer be to delight tourists; it will be to breed.

As a result, Chinese officials here say that they feel no need to make special accommodations for Tai Shan -- in housing, food or language -- and that if conditions are not to his liking, he'll have to adjust.

"Americans are too emotional about Tai Shan," said Wu Daifu, the 32-year-old zookeeper who was assigned to be the adolescent panda's principal feeder and friend.

Like other Chinese, Wu shakes his head in puzzlement over the months-long, tearful goodbyes following the announcement that the 4 1/2 -year-old Tai Shan would be leaving the National Zoo.

Tai Shan won't be put into the center's breeding program right away because the success rate is higher when males are 6 1/2 to 7 years old, making 2012 the ideal year. But he will start psychological training, researchers said. He'll be shown videos of pandas mating and get to hear tapes of female pandas calling for males.

There are high hopes for Tai Shan, who is named after a majestic mountain in central China that is the subject of countless poems and was once a retreat for royalty. His grandfather Pan Pan is the breeding program's star, having produced more than 100 offspring in his 24 years.

Loans of giant pandas to American zoos began in the 1970s as part of a strategy to engender goodwill, known as panda diplomacy. The endangered pandas became such a tourist draw that countries began to pay China to borrow the animals. Tai Shan's parents, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, arrived in Washington on Dec. 6, 2000, on a $10 million, 10-year loan.

Under the terms of the deal, any cubs would be the property of China. Tai Shan, born in July 2005, was supposed to be sent to China when he was 2 but was granted several extensions. His time in Washington finally came to an end when Chinese officials said he was needed for the country's panda breeding program.

Tai Shan left Thursday on a FedEx jet for the 8,642-mile, 14 1/2 -hour flight from Dulles International Airport to Chengdu in China's Sichuan province.

With an estimated 1,600 giant pandas left in the wild, China has been aggressively breeding pandas in captivity. It has employed fertility treatments for female pandas, shipped frozen panda sperm from zoo to zoo and coaxed each panda to mate with three or more others each breeding season.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company