U.S.-born pandas adjust to new China homes

By John Vause, CNN
‘March 16, 2010

Click to see pictures

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • Tai Shan has no special diet in China as he did in Washington, officials say
  • Tai Shan is one of 90 pandas at the Bifeng Gorge Center
  • Cousin Mei Lan of Zoo Atlanta now at Chengdu panda base, also in Sichuan

Ya’an Bifeng Gorge Breeding Base, China (CNN) — After years of living in the public eye, with hundreds of thousands of adoring fans, the sponsorship deals, the million-dollar home, the dozens of staff to serve his every need — suddenly, Tai Shan, a U.S.-born panda, is finding himself in a much quieter life.

For more than four years, he was a rock star at the National Zoo in Washington. The only giant panda born there to live past infancy, Tai Shan was a huge crowd-pleaser. A video of his sneezing while he was a cub grabbed more than 51 million hits on YouTube.

But now he is away from the spotlight in Ya’an Bifeng Gorge Panda Research Center in central China’s Sichuan province. He was returned to China in February, along with a three-year-old female named Mei Lan who was born in Atlanta, Georgia, as part of a longstanding agreement between China and the U.S.

“We want to ask the people of Washington to rest at ease … we will try our utmost to take good care of Tai Shan, and we guarantee that the giant panda has a very happy and healthy life here in China,” said Tang Chunxiang, the center’s deputy director and chief veterinarian.

When Tai Shan was living the high life in D.C., he was regaled with birthday cakes and pears and cooked sweet potatoes. But now, the party’s over. Officials here say there will be no special diet for Tai Shan — although they insist the bamboo in China is the best.

“He seems to be in very good spirits. And he has a very good appetite. He eats 10 to 20 kilograms (22-44 pounds) of bamboo a day. He also exercises a lot,” said Dong Chao, Tai Shan’s trainer.

At the Bifeng Gorge Center, Tai Shan is one of 90 pandas. While there are still passing tourists, it is pretty clear that he is just another cute and fluffy face in the crowd.

“I’m amazed how laid back he looks,” said Harold Gilmore, a British tourist. “He looks just the same as any of them.”

We have arranged for some other pandas of similar age to live near him, so he’s not lonely
–Tang Chunxiang, Ya’an Bifeng Gorge Breeding Base deputy director
//

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It seems a lot like that scene out of the movie “Madagascar,” when Alex the lion leaves a New York zoo. But Tai Shan won’t go through this experience alone: In the neighboring enclosure is three-year-old Fu Long, who was born in Austria and repatriated last year. Mei Lan was taken to Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, also in Sichuan province.

“We have arranged for some other pandas of similar age to live near him, so he’s not lonely,” said Tang. “We want Tai Shan to choose a mate that is to his liking. So upon returning to the motherland, he can contribute to the breeding of the species.”

With only 1,600 giant pandas in the world, the pressure will be on Tai Shan to become a dad. But that won’t happen until he is six or seven years old. And at least he is paying his way: Within hours of arriving, he scored a sponsorship deal with a Chinese carmaker paying out one million RMB ($US150, 000) plus daily costs for food, medical care and other expenses.

All of that will no doubt ensure a trouble-free life back in his natural habitat, away from the pandarazzi of the United States.

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