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Panda “Ambassadors” Introduced to Washington, D.C.


They’ve been in town since late last year, but it won’t be until this week that Washington, D.C.’s latest “power couple” will finally greet their adoring fans. Giant pandas Mei Xiang (“may sh-ONG”) and Tian Tian (“t-YEN t-YEN”) will make their long-awaited public debut Wednesday after a month-long quarantine. The pair will finally welcome guests to their new home at Washington’s National Zoo.


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“They’re beautiful and they’re different and I think they’re fascinating,” says President Clinton, who got a sneak peak at the pandas on Saturday. Clinton predicts the pair will be an instant hit with visitors.

The pandas have spent the last month getting used to their new home, which features an outdoor habitat of an open cave-like grotto specially crafted to look like a setting in southwestern China’s bamboo forest. During the summertime, the area will be air-conditioned to keep the pair cool.

Eagerly Awaited

While Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, the new pair’s famous predecessors lived at the National Zoo from 1972 to 1992 and 1999 respectively, the pandas were the zoo’s most popular exhibit. Visitors never seemed to tire of watching the pudgy couple munch bamboo. With the eagerly awaited new pair, many hold out for the appearance of a baby panda sometime in the future.

In the meantime, the pandas’ popularity should give a much-needed boost to the fortunes of their wild cousins. With perhaps only 1,000 animals surviving in the wild bamboo forests in the mountains of China, the panda is one of the world’s most endangered mammals. But their outlook seems to be improving, and Mei Xiang and Tian Tian can help by promoting interest in the future of their species.

“Pandas are so appealing, they are really successful in getting people interested in conservation,” says Karen Baragona, a panda expert with the World Wildlife Fund, the largest privately supported conservation organization in the world. The fund is known by its distinctive panda logo.

In China, the panda is viewed as a national treasure, a symbol not only of conservation but of the country itself. Abroad, their tremendous international appeal has earned them a unique status as a representative of endangered species and conservation efforts worldwide.

“By learning about pandas, people learn what it takes to save endangered species, ” says Baragona. Learning about pandas begins with learning about the habitat in which they live, and the other animals that share their forests.

Though their range was once vast, giant pandas today live only in fragmented pockets of forest, a cramped arrangement susceptible to constant pressure from the area’s dominant species—the human. Desperate for a livelihood, local residents have cleared large areas of forest for agriculture and timber, putting the squeeze on not only the panda, but on the many other species that share its home range.

The rare, goat-like takin, clouded leopard, golden monkey, red panda, and golden pheasant also dwell in these mountainous forests, which are rich with diverse tree species and important medicinal plants. Like the giant panda, these species, many found nowhere else in the world, are feeling the pinch of habitat destruction.

Reaching Out Beyond the Zoo

But the region’s famous new ambassadors to Washington, D.C., may be able to help all who call these forests home, not only by increasing awareness but by providing a more immediately tangible benefit—cash. For the honor of hosting Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, the National Zoo will donate U.S. $10 million dollars over the next 10 years to the China Wildlife Conservation Association.

The much-needed funds will support the protection of crucial forest habitat through parks and reserves, and the creation of animal migration corridors free from human interference.

While the primary goal is the protection of the wild panda population, the end result will be a little more breathing room for all animals living in one of Earth’s truly special places.

“Pandas are an umbrella species,” says Baragona. “Their protection has a sheltering effect on all the plants and animals of their ecosystem.”

So dollars spent on the charismatic panda can have an equally beneficial effect on the obscure giant salamander. Two new residents in Washington, D.C., can help ensure the permanent protection of mountainous, misty forests half a world away.

In the United States, get full coverage of this story on tonight’s cable television broadcast of the National Geographic Today news show at 7 p.m. ET.


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More Information

Panda Facts

• The giant panda lives in the mountains of southwestern China and is one of the world’s rarest mammals. Only about 1,000 of these black-and- white relatives of bears survive in the wild.

• Pandas can grow to a height of six feet (2 meters) and weigh up to 300 pounds (136 kilograms).

• Pandas eat almost nothing but bamboo shoots and leaves. Occasionally they eat other vegetation, fish, or small animals, but bamboo accounts for 99 percent of their diets.

• Pandas eat fast, they eat a lot, and they spend about 12 hours a day doing it. The reason: They digest only about a fifth of what they eat. Overall, bamboo is not very nutritious. The shoots and leaves are the most valuable parts of the plants, so that’s what a well-fed panda concentrates on eating. To stay healthy, they have to eat a lot—up to 15 percent of their body weight in 12 hours—so they eat fast.

• Pandas are active for 14 hours a day on the average, most of it spent feeding; they are inactive for ten hours, usually sleeping from two to four hours.

Source: Catherine D. Hughes, Creature Feature @ nationalgeographic.com

More Information

Threatened Pandas

• Illegal hunting and habitat destruction threatens the survival of pandas. Panda pelts sell for more than U.S. $10,000 in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan.

• To help preserve the remaining panda habitat the Chinese government, in concert with the World Wide Fund for Nature, is implementing a ten-year plan that would expand the 13 existing reserves and create 14 new ones by relocating 10,000 loggers and farmers who would be paid to move out. The entire effort could cost U.S. 80 million dollars. China has budgeted (U.S.) 13 million dollars and hopes the rest will come from international conservation groups and other sources.

• One possible source is new, long-term loans of captive pandas for breeding in zoos and parks worldwide. Instead of a few months, the old norm, such loans are being made for ten years and bring at least 10 million dollars U.S. each.

• Read more at Infocentral @ nationalgeographic.com