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    Debut of pesky panda cub takes Washington by storm

2005-12-01 07:35

WASHINGTON: So little in Washington is black and white that all it takes is a tiny panda cub to captivate the entire US capital.

Tai Shan, the 9.5-kilogram baby panda born in July at the US National Zoo, took his first bow before the media on Tuesday, reducing one of the hardest-bitten press corps in the world to cooing and incoherent babble.

The little bear will formally meet his public in a few days. Demand for tickets has been feverish, with the initial batch of 13,000 snapped up within two hours from an overwhelmed website.

In his debut before some 100 members of the international media from more than 50 outlets, Tai Shan showed every sign of relishing the attention.

Carried in from his den into the indoor public exhibit, the fluffy cub struggled to get down from his handler's arms and nipped at her jeans as she walked away.

He then shook his head and began clambering over the rocky display on wobbly legs, taking a couple of tumbles along the way and nosing at everything in his path.

"He is very anxious to go outside," panda keeper Nicole Meese told reporters.

Tai Shan, whose name means "peaceful mountain," is top of the chart for growth. Zoo officials say he is becoming more assertive by the day, squealing and barking when he is picked up and chasing his keepers around his indoor enclosure.

Tai Shan was named last month according to Chinese custom and after an online vote by more than 220,000 people.

Preserving his health is crucial given how hard it is to breed giant pandas in captivity.

Females only ovulate once a year, with a slim 24-to-48-hour window for breeding.

Tai Shan is the first cub for Mei Xiang, who has proved an instinctive mother. He is now dependent on her for milk but will graduate to the staple panda diet of bamboo shoots at around six months.

Mei Xiang will be ready to breed again in a couple of years and the Washington-based zoo plans to try to mate her with father Tian Tian again in 2007, said Jo Gayle Howard, the zoo's reproductive scientist.

The couple is on a 10-year loan from China and any babies it produces belong to Beijing. Tai Shan is due to return to his ancestral land when he is 2 years old.

"This cub you see today is an ambassador for all the work the national zoo is doing to save giant pandas," Howard told the news conference.

The zoo has launched a campaign to raise US$400,000 in 2006 for panda research.

With only 1,600 left in the world, the black-and-white bears have come to symbolize endangered species everywhere.


(HK Edition 12/01/2005 page1)


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