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22 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Pandamania’ as bouncing Bei Bei makes media debut.

A black-and-white fur ball known as Bei Bei the giant panda made its media debut Wednesday as the new star of Washington zoo, a month before stepping out to meet thousands of impatient fans. WASHINGTON — If the youngest giant panda cub at the National Zoo is stressed out about appearing in front of crowds for the first time, he isn’t showing it.

On Jan. 16, the nearly 4-month-old will take his first steps into the zoo’s outdoor panda habitat, which has been closed since Bei Bei was born in August. Bei Bei has already been fussed over by two first ladies — Michelle Obama and her Chinese counterpart Peng Liyuan — during a state visit to Washington in September.

Instead, under bright television lights with cameras clicking, he quickly fell asleep on an examination table, leaving a small puddle of drool on the tablecloth. Female giant pandas are fertile for fewer than three days a year — a pretty narrow time window for, ahem, activities, especially when you consider that many captive pandas simply don’t know how to do it. Keepers at the sprawling zoo in the heart of the US capital — where admission is free — have been preparing the animal gradually for his introduction to the public stage. This international panda doting (or “panda-monium,” as America’s collective panda obsession has come to be known) may seem frivolous, but it could be the only way to save the panda from extinction. It has already led to a dramatic improvement in the survival rate of pandas bred in captivity over the last 20 years, as the Associated Press reports.

With their irresistible, baby-like wobble and giant eyes set in black patches, pandas first came to the US in 1972 as a symbol of a thawing relationship between the US and China. He’s one of four pandas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, along with his mother, Mei Xiang (may SHONG), his father, Tian Tian (t-YEN t-YEN), and his 2-year-old sister, Bao Bao (Bow Bow). At a dinner during US president Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China that year, meant to improve relations between the two countries, First Lady Pat Nixon mentioned to Chinese premier Zhou Enlai that she loved pandas. Meanwhile, panda matchmakers — this is a real job — scour a database of all the world’s captive pandas to find the most genetically “suitable” pairings. But in their eagerness to play yenta, zoos may be missing out on one crucial factor, scientists at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research say: When bears are given the opportunity to chose their own mates, researchers reported in the journal Nature Communications, they were far more likely to copulate and produce a cub.

Today, the US rents pandas from China to study them in order to improve their conservation, and to feed an insatiable public appetite for panda watching. Throughout his nearly 30-minute appearance before reporters and photographers, keepers and veterinarians stroked Bei Bei’s thick, bristly fur, and he protested only when they tried to open his mouth to count his teeth. Because his ability to reproduce is critically important to the survival of his species, Bei Bei will have to interact with humans frequently. “He’s in for a life that’s very hands-on, especially when he goes back to China,” said Brandie Smith, the zoo’s associate director of animal care sciences. “Our goal is to make him very comfortable in this kind of situation.” “We have such an incredible opportunity to observe these beautiful endangered species as they grow and develop,” Thompson said. “Every day is a treasure.” All in all, there’s a lot of bleating, chirping, rolling around and splashing of water, as well as some more R-rated behaviours that may be best left to the imagination.

During the females’ short fertility period, the animals were paired up according to genetic recommendations from the panda species survival plan (these plans help direct captive animal breeding to preserve genetic diversity and a healthy population as a safeguard against extinction in the wild). Male bears were introduced to females’ pens for anywhere from three to 75 minutes, then moved on to the next one whether or not they made it all the way, so to speak.

And after the nightmare speed dating session was over, every female was artificially inseminated as a fail-safe — the researchers would sort out the mess of paternity questions later using DNA tests. Fewer than 2,000 of the black and white bears exist outside of conservation centers and zoos, according to the World Wildlife Fund, but they’re needed for their role in their ecosystem, mostly spreading seeds and boosting vegetation growth. And, conservation scientists argue, pandas belong in the wild (for one thing, wild pandas are a lot better at procreating than their captive counterparts). But life is risky for a captive panda brought back into the wilderness — last year, the only panda successfully released by China fell ill and died after just a month on her own.

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