Giant panda Tai Shan lands corporate sponsorship from Chinese automaker

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 Staff Writer
Saturday, February 6, 2010

CHENGDU, CHINA -- Tai Shan had been in China only a few hours Friday when he scored what some athletes and stars strive for their entire lives: a corporate sponsorship.

In a deal negotiated over the past few weeks, Sichuan Auto Industry Group agreed to pay a million yuan, or about $150,000, to "adopt" Tai Shan for life.

The beloved giant panda who left the National Zoo on Thursday will still join China's breeding program and stay under scientists' care at the government-run Bifengxia Panda Base. But the company will pay for food, medical care and other daily expenses.

It's unclear what Sichuan Auto gets out of it.

Cao Guodong, the automaker's deputy general manager, said interest in the panda is related to efforts to develop an electric car to sell in the United States.

Tai Shan "will take the role of our image ambassador in the future, which is good for polishing our brand and expanding our fame," Cao said. He said the company does not expect Tai Shan to leave the panda base to do things such as, say, attend product launches, but mug shots of Tai Shan probably will be used in the car's advertising campaigns.

The base has been involved in similar corporate adoptions, but this is a first for a deal of this size.

Companies usually pay a token $600 for one year to get their name on a plaque outside a panda's home and to have a picture taken with the animal. The fee is considerably more -- $6,000 -- for an "exclusive" adoption in which the panda's name can be changed for a year, although not for commercial benefit.

The last type of adoption is for life, and the fee is negotiated between the individual or company and the panda base. There's no stipulation regarding commercial benefit. Sichuan Auto officials said they expect to spend about $90,000 a year for Tai Shan.

When asked about the adoption, Huang Yan, the panda center's assistant director for engineering, who is in charge of Tai Shan's care, said the details were being worked out.

If Tai Shan was aware of the uncertainty in his new life, it was impossible to tell.

He landed here, a 2 1/2 -hour drive from the panda base, at 4:26 p.m. Friday with the same nonchalance with which he left his home in the District. As reporters mobbed him, he calmly stared through his bamboo-filled glass cage and did what he always does: eat.

During the 15 1/2 -hour flight, Tai Shan ate his way through 40 pounds of bamboo, 3 pounds of pears and 2 pounds of apples. He was still munching when Nicole Meese, his main keeper during his 4 1/2 years at the National Zoo, handed off responsibility for his care to her Chinese counterpart, Wu Daifu.

"I knew he'd do well, but this was beyond what I expected," Meese said. "The flight didn't faze him at all."

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

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