Baby giant panda fever grips Taiwan

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iol scitech dec 2 National Zoo Panda

AP

China lists 420 species as rare or endangered, including the panda, golden monkeys, Asian black bears and pangolins.

Taipei - For Cheng Shu-fen, queuing more than 90 minutes to let her two-year-old son catch a brief glimpse of the first Taiwan-born giant panda cub was worth it.

In the Taipei Zoo's Panda House, the mother and son stayed in a long line, from where they could spot Yuan Zai three times from different angles. “My boy was thrilled even though the longest glimpse we had was only five seconds,” Cheng said.

Cheng was one of about 20 000 tourists visiting the zoo that day.

In the crowded Panda House, which can process 19 200 visitors daily, people constantly took photographs of Yuan Zai even when the six-month-old bear was sleeping.

The superstar and her mother, nine-year-old Yuan Yuan, are on show for eight hours a day.

But visitors have to be lucky to see the 16.7-kilogram Yuan Zai moving around, because she sleeps 20 hours a day. “Students are excited to witness pandas in action and want to learn more about them,” said Juliya Han, a teacher taking dozens of pupils on a field trip. Zoo staffers encouraged them to move forward quickly to keep the long line moving. Dealing with large numbers of visitors brings its problems.

“Reminding excited visitors to turn off camera flashes has been a headache for us,” said zoo spokesman Chang Ming-hsung. “We've tried to minimize impacts being made by visitors on the panda cub because she remains vulnerable.”

Yuan Zai was separated from her mother at birth on July 6, and raised in an incubator because her leg was slightly injured. Since then, the video diary of the newborn has received overwhelming feedback. A video showing Yuan Zai reunited with her mother in early August received more than 2.46 million hits.

The giant panda cub is highly exposed on the internet. Viewers find it relaxing to watch live streaming of Yuan Zai eating, climbing, sleeping or doing nothing. Since her January 6 debut, Yuan Zai has kept making headlines.

Local photojournalists are allowed in for 20 minutes early each morning and the zoo issues daily updates on the pandas to the media. Local news websites have built special pages for Yuan Zai. Panda fever even reached a point where the president of the prestigious National Tsing Hua University issued “student IDs” to the panda family in a publicity event at the zoo, because a panda has been the university's mascot since 1969. Not everyone is happy with the fervour surrounding the panda family.

Yuan Zai's parents, Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, whose names combine to mean “reunion” in Chinese, were given to Taiwan by China in December 2008. Yuan Zai fever aroused patriotic sentiment in some people, who said the zoo disproportionately favours the endangered and protected species of China. Several callers to the zoo said they were unhappy that endangered Formosan black bears, which are native to Taiwan, do not get enough attention.

Pop singer Jiang Hui, who rearranged one of her songs to relate to Yuan Zai last year, also recently revealed her love for Formosan black bears. “Yuan Zai is indeed adorable. However, you are, after all, truly our national treasures,” Jiang said in an homage posted on Facebook.

Taiwanese researchers estimate that about only 200 Formosan black bears are left alive, far fewer than 1,600 giant pandas in the wild. In response to criticism, the Taipei city government plans an outdoor exhibition in late February to raise awareness about wildlife conservation.

The criticism doesn't seem to have affected the popularity of the pandas. The city offers panda-themed buses to take visitors to the zoo. When they arrive, shops at the Panda House sell souvenirs that continue to catch the eye of kids and adults alike.

About 93 000 mini lanterns dubbed “Taipei Yuan Zai” will be given away prior to the Lantern Festival on February 14. - Sapa-dpa

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