Panda Tai Shan ready to head back home

By Tan Yingzi in Washington and Huang Zhiling in Chengdu (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-01-30 08:27
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Every morning without fail, Elise Ney turns on a webcam that broadcasts live giant panda Tai Shan's life in the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC.

It is a ritual Ney has been performing since the bear was born in the zoo four and a half years ago.

Panda Tai Shan ready to head back home

But in a week's time, she will not be able to see the panda any longer.

Tai Shan, who earned the nickname "Butterstick" because he was about the size of a stick of butter when born, will head for China on Feb 4 to become part of a program to help sustain the giant panda population in the wild.

"Looking at Tai is the very first thing I do in the morning even before coffee," businesswoman Ney told China Daily at the Giant Panda habitat inside the zoo on Thursday afternoon.

"He is like part of my family and his departure will be really tough for us."

Ney is one of more than 2,300 panda lovers, or Pandarazzi, who track the life of Tai Shan and form photo-sharing club Panda Unlimited on Flickr.

What the group really wants to do now is to set up a webcam for Tai Shan at his home in China.

"We have raised more than $50,000 for pandas in the past years and we are willing to fund the webcam project in China," she said. "We cannot imagine life without him."

Another panda fan, Sue Labott, flew from Chicago to the US capital to bid Tai Shan farewell. She also keeps track of the bear via the webcam and has been to the zoo five times.

"I really hope Chinese panda keepers continue to update Tai Shan's life online, because he is such a special bear," she said.

The zoo has seen a growing number of visitors to the Panda Pavilion recently, many of whom have been watching Tai Shan since he was born on July 9, 2005.

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He was the first surviving giant panda cub born at the Smithsonian National Zoo and has become the most popular animal there, attracting thousands of visitors every year and millions of fans worldwide via the webcam.

He is also a mascot of sorts to Washingtonians, as he is featured on the smart cards used to access the city's subways.

Because of his huge popularity, China agreed to extend the loan to the zoo twice until the end of January. Under the agreement, giant panda cubs born at the zoo belong to China and will be sent to the Wolong Base in Sichuan province after the cub turns 2.

"Tai Shan is a great bond between American and Chinese people, a symbol of friendship," Karin Korpowski-Gallo, public affairs officer of the zoo, told China Daily.

To all panda fans' delight, Tai Shan's parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, are trying for another baby panda at the zoo. The pair is also expected to leave the country in December this year.

On Saturday, a public farewell for Tai Shan will also be held at the zoo, featuring a variety of panda activities and giveaways.

Thanks to weeks of special training, Tai Shan is also ready to return to China.

"Tai Shan is now a teenage bear and he is pretty smart and adaptable," Don Moore, associate director of Animal Care and a zoo-based wildlife biologist, told reporters on Thursday.

"He can do very well moving from place A to B. And our Chinese colleagues are extremely professional and we can trust each other."

Since Tai Shan was born, the zoo has been preparing for his departure, said Nicole Meese, one of the panda's keepers.

"We expose him to different noises, smells and people, so he gets a lot of experience," she said.

"He is a confident and laid-back boy and he will have a smooth transition."

Meese has shed many tears for Tai Shan's impending departure. "But I am also happy that he is going to have a new chapter in life and play a bigger role in the global panda breeding program."

To tackle any "language barriers" the bear might face with his new Chinese keepers, Meese has created a number of universal hand signals.

On Feb 4 morning, Tai Shan and Mei Lan, a 3-year-old female panda born at Zoo Atlanta, will travel onboard a custom-decaled FedEx Express 777 Freight - known as the "FedEx Panda Express" - from Washington's Dulles International Airport to Chengdu, Sichuan province.

Leading Chinese panda experts have expressed confidence that both Tai Shan and Mei Lan will adapt to their Chinese homes quickly.

Li Desheng, deputy chief of the administrative bureau of the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan, said Tai Shan will live in the reserve's Bifengxia base in Sichuan's Ya'an because the reserve itself was damaged in the 8.0-magnitude earthquake on May 12, 2008.