The D.C. native arrived in his ancestral home on Wednesday night on a special FedEx Boeing 777 nicknamed the “Panda Express,” and he was transferred to the base in the early hours of Thursday morning. He was initially reluctant to come out of his cage, an 800-pound, custom-made steel and plexiglass crate.
“After patient guidance, communication and consolation, and under the temptation of food, Bei Bei relaxed and bravely stepped out of his cage into the quarantine area,” the Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda wrote on its WeChat social media account.
He was anxious at first. “We saw him pacing in his small enclosure or climbing the handrail, which showed his nervousness,” Su told the China News Service.
But it turns out the way to Bei Bei’s heart is through his stomach.
For his first meal in China — breakfast on Thursday morning, although with jet lag, he might have thought it was dinner on Wednesday night — Bei Bei found the local bamboo to his taste. He ate 13 pounds of the stuff, as well as some carrots.
The 240-pound animal was not, however, impressed with wowotou, a special brown cake especially for pandas, made with soybeans, corn, rice, calcium powder, oil, eggs and sugar. When Su offered Bei Bei a slice of the cake on Thursday, he batted it away — twice — with his paw, according to a televised live stream of the meal.
It’s not an uncommon reaction.
Two pandas to previously return from Atlanta, Mei Huan and Mei Lun, had a similar response to wowotou. They wouldn’t eat the brown slabs but expressed a strong preference for American cookies. The last panda to arrive from Washington, Bao Bao, was also accustomed to the U.S. version, so her keepers had to stuff the wowotou into her bamboo to get her to eat it. Not enough sugar, perhaps.
Since his first hours, Bei Bei has been doing two of his favorite things from Washington — climbing and tumbling — in his new habitat, complete with trees and a little pagoda for him to hang out in. Also: sitting on his bottom and eating bamboo.
Conscious that they are now raising a bilingual panda, the keepers have been calling him by his name in English, as well as in local Sichuan dialect, which is — Bei Bei. They might sound the same to the untrained ear, but the creature seems to pick up on the difference in tones. He responds to the American “Bei Bei,” but not to the local pronunciation that carries a more rounded sound.
“I noticed he didn’t react when I called his name in Sichuanese, but when I say it in English, his ears prick up and he turns to look at me,” Su said. (Mei Huan and Mei Lun, the pandas from Atlanta, were notoriously unreceptive to learning Chinese.)
Laurie Thompson, assistant curator of giant pandas at the National Zoo, and Don Neiffer, chief veterinarian, stayed in Chengdu to help with the handover. “We’ll learn their training methods, like some hand gestures, and slowly combine them with our own to help Bei Bei adapt to his new environment,” Su said.
Bei Bei barely had time to get over his 16-hour journey from the Washington area to Sichuan province before he made his first appearance in the media on Thursday. Local television crews were allowed to film him as he explored his new environment.
With his initial red carpet — or rather, green hill — appearance over, Bei Bei has now entered a month-long quarantine period.
“We will strengthen Bei Bei’s health so that he won’t get sick easily and enhance his immunity to strong diseases,” Cheng Yanxi, a vet at the base, told reporters. “We’ll also conduct environmental disinfection, and control visitors and animals to reduce disturbance.”
Bei Bei was given his name, which means “precious treasure,” by first lady Michelle Obama and Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan when he was born at the National Zoo in August 2015. Under China’s agreements with host countries, all pandas must return to China when they turn 4 so they can join the breeding program.
He is the latest of the zoo’s three giant panda cubs to go to China. Bao Bao, who went to China in 2017, now lives in the Wolong Panda Reserve in Sichuan province. It seems she has been upholding the stereotype about panda libido. She has not yet produced any cubs.
When Bei Bei reaches sexual maturity — usually between 6 and 7 years old — he will join China’s captive breeding program, which has proved successful in staving off extinction.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature reduced the giant panda’s threat status from “endangered” to “vulnerable” in 2016. There are thought to be about 1,800 giant pandas living in the wild in Sichuan province.
Wang Yuan and Liu Yang contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier headline incorrectly referred to Bei Bei as a female.