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

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 5, 2010; B01

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.

Not everyone agrees with such methods. Some Chinese scientists say that trying to create test-tube pandas unnecessarily creates pain for females who have to undergo surgery and that similar results can be achieved through alternative means. Others say the money spent on whiz-bang technology at breeding centers would be better spent on habitat preservation.

But the program has achieved results: In 1999, the government had 123 pandas in breeding centers and zoos around the world. Last year, the number was 249.

The pressures that go with panda life in China are a far cry from Tai Shan's time at the National Zoo, where he was a rock star despite the fact that all he did most days was lie on his back and eat bamboo.

The subject of a documentary, a model for zoo merchandise and the inspiration for a commemorative postage stamp, he drew millions of visitors to Washington each year. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) once referred to Tai Shan as the city's most important citizen.

His welcome in China is likely to be underwhelming.

In a village 10 minutes from the panda center, residents said they know little of pandas, much less Tai Shan.

"I've only seen pandas on TV. I have never seen a real one," said Deng Guobin, a 35-year-old farmer. "My life doesn't have connections to pandas."

Wang Qiubo, 35, said she snuck into the panda park a few years ago on a whim, but "I feel pandas are just so-so, not that interesting. . . . I have no idea who Tai Shan is. To be frank, I don't care."

In Washington, Tai Shan, who was once so small he was compared to a stick of butter but quickly grew into a 184-pound-bruiser, not only had the fame of a prince but lived like one. He spent his days in a 12,000-square-foot, multimillion-dollar custom-built home he shared with his parents. It included rocky outcrops for climbing, grottoes for privacy, weeping willows for shade, and pools and a waterfall for cooling off.

The Bifengxia center is built in the magical bamboo forests of China that are featured in movies and that are the giant panda's natural habitat. Tai Shan's new home in Panda Villa No. 1 is a standard-issue 17-by-20-foot concrete hut attached to a 10,000-plus-square-foot outdoor play area. It has majestic views of the surrounding mountains and crisp, unpolluted air, but its climbing areas are falling apart. Zoo officials said Tai Shan will probably share the villa with another panda, although the two will be separated by a wall. His companion will most likely be a female named Snow White.

The facility has been crowded since 2008, when a devastating earthquake destroyed a nearby panda conservation center and the two had to merge.

"We are really suffering from a housing shortage," said Huang Yan, the center's assistant director of engineering.

About 90 percent of a typical panda's diet is bamboo, but in Washington, Tai Shan was allowed to feast on cooked sweet potatoes and, his favorite, pears. He also had a yearly birthday cake. In Bifengxia, he will be served only bamboo along with steamed bread made of corn mixed with apples and carrots.

"We won't arrange a special menu for Tai Shan," Huang said. "We will give him the same menu as other pandas."

Tai Shan's travel companion, Mei Lan, a cub born in Atlanta who was heading to China on the same flight but will go to a different panda reserve, will have a special Mandarin tutor to help ease her transition. But the scientists at Bifengxia said total immersion after a days-long transition period will be the best thing for Tai Shan.

"I will speak Mandarin to him," said veterinarian Wang Chengdong. "If I speak Chinese, he will get used to Chinese and he can more easily blend in with the rest of the panda group."

Because Tai Shan is needed for the breeding program, officials said, there's little hope of his being allowed to return to the United States.

"If he goes back to the States, he will have limited choices for a spouse. So it will be good for him and the panda family if he stays in China," Huang said. But he said that after a one-month quarantine, Tai Shan will be allowed to greet visitors again. "His fans in the United States will be welcome to come here to see him again."

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

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