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Sichuan, Sweet Home for Pandas
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The mention of the giant panda would remind the well-informed of southwest China's Sichuan Province.

The province is home to more than 80 percent of the world's existing some 1,500 pandas, and its capital Chengdu boasts the world's only research base for giant panda breeding built in a large metropolis.

Located in the city's northern suburbs and easily accessible to visitors, the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding is the habitat of 58 pandas.

If one wants to see pandas, Chengdu is the place to go. This has been the consensus of many foreign visitors.

Hailed as a living fossil, the giant panda has been around for about 8 million years. any animals of its era have long perished.

But due to human activities and change in the natural environment, the pandas' habitat has been greatly reduced, and the animals have been on the verge of extinction.

In order to call for the protection of the endangered species and let the world know more about it and Chengdu, the Chengdu Municipal Association for External Cultural Exchanges with Foreign Countries sponsored an overseas panda tour to visit major zoos in the world which housed the giant panda from China from mid-July to late September.

Members of the panda tour delegation, who included officials from the Chengdu Municipal Association for External Cultural Exchanges with Foreign Countries, experts from the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding, a TV production crew making a documentary of the giant panda and journalists, visited officials in cities with the giant panda from China and held activities in zoos there to publicize the endangered animal.

During the 40-day tour, they were impressed with the love for the giant panda from people from different parts of the world.

"When I went through the Customs formalities in the New York Kennedy International Airport, the Customs worker who identified herself Siounis was very interested in our delegation after she learned the United States was the first stop of our panda tour," said He Xiaomei, a reporter from the Chengdu Economic Daily.

He, a member of the delegation, said that Siounis suspended her work for a while to show her photos of the one-year-old panda Taishan in the National Zoological Park in Washington.

Members of the panda delegation visited Memphis, Atlanta and Washington, three of the four American cities with pandas from China.

In the Memphis Zoo in the state of Tennessee, giant pandas Le Le and Ya Ya lived in an expensive panda house with an investment of US$16 million

Le Le, a male panda, became a star on July 18 local time when the delegation arrived in the Memphis Zoo, as it turned eight.

Throngs of people from different parts of the United States visited it in the zoo with a history of 100 years.

"I had changed two planes to arrive in Memphis to see the cuddly bear," said Marcie Gitlin, a middle-aged art designer from New York.

Travelling with her family, Gitlin told chinadaily.com.cn that her nine-year-old daughter had dreamed of seeing pandas for quite for a long time.

"Both my daughter and I felt lucky to meet people from Chengdu, the habitat of the giant panda today in the zoo, and learned a lot about the panda," she said.

It costs an American zoo US$1 million a year to lease a panda from China. Refuting the speculation that the Memphis Zoo had difficulty in keeping the pandas, John R. Ouellette, Research Coordinator of the Memphis Zoo, said that all zoos in the United States would like to keep them as long as permitted as Americans liked them so much.

Some 500 people gathered together in Zoo Atlanta on the morning of July 22 local time to welcome the arrival of the Chengdu panda delegation which came specially to see giant pandas Lun Lun and Yang Yang whose parents live in Chengdu.

Both pandas arrived in Zoo Atlanta on a 10-year loan from the Chinese Government in 1999.

"Atlanta was the first city in the United States to receive pandas on loan from China. Since then, they have brought great joy to locals, children in particular," said Blythe Randolf, vice-president of Zoo Atlanta, in an interview with chinadaily.com.cn.

Jennifer Mullins, associate director of the Office of Student Financial Planning and Services in the Atlanta-based Georgia Institute of Technology, visits Zoo Atlanta with her 2.5-year-old daughter Abbey Headerson once in a month to see pandas.

"I am learning how to use the chopsticks and plan to visit China, the habitat of the pandas when my daughter is old enough," she told chinadaily.com.cn.

In her interview with the panda delegation, Shirley Franklin, mayor of Atlanta, said that she often took her grandson to Zoo Atlanta to see the pair of pandas, and that the panda's staple food, bamboo, grows in her backyard.

The two pandas eat more than 20 kinds of fresh bamboo in Zoo Atlanta, many of which are donated by volunteers.

The pandas have served as a bridge between Chengdu and Atlanta, which has a positive influence not only on the current population, but also future generations, Franklin said.

"More and more young people are starting to learn more about China and Chengdu. As far as I know, many of them have been to Chengdu or are planning to visit Chengdu," she added.

In less than one hour, 500 picture albums of Chengdu, 500 badges of the giant panda, 400 photos of the giant pandas and 150 toys of the giant panda from Chengdu were taken away by some 1,000 visitors to Zoo Atlanta.

After the panda delegation arrived in Washington on July 26 local time, John Berry, Director of the National Zoological Park in Washington, invited its members to breakfast the next day.

He said that Taishan, who celebrated its one-year birthday on July 9, must be the most famous animal in the United States. The webpage of Taishan had been clicked more than 21 million times since the cub was born. A total of 220,000 American had participated in the naming of the cub. His park had collected nearly 1,000 pages of news clippings relating to Taishan in half a year, Berry said.

He showed the delegation gifts for Taishan from people in different parts of the United States, such as the pillow, painting, and Christmas card.

The most noticeable was a letter from a panda fan inviting Taishan to participate in his wedding.

After breakfast with Berry, the delegation visited Taishan and put up posters of pandas and Chengdu near the panda house. The posters attracted a huge crowd of visitors.

"I've seen Taishan three times this week," said Amanda Leveillee, an 11-year-old student from the state of Massachusetts.

With a logo of the giant panda in her T-shirt, Amanda looked a little timid. But she asked members of the panda delegation lots of questions when she learned that they came from Chengdu, habitat of the giant panda.

"I only knew the giant panda lived in the bamboo forest in China," she said

Her father said that they spent eight hours traveling from Massachusetts to Washington and then returning from Washington to Massachusetts.

"Amanda likes the giant panda so much that she always collects information about it and shares it with her classmates. Her classmates nickname her 'panda' as the pronunciation of her name is similar to that of panda," her father said.

When the panda delegation held a reception in the Sofitel Hotel in Paris to promote the giant panda on August 2 local time, Francoise Delord, president of ZooParc de Beauval, told Jing Shimin, assistant to the president of the Chengdu Research Base for the Breeding of the Giant Panda, that she wanted very much to visit Chengdu and contributed to the conservation of the giant panda.

As the largest zoo in France, ZooParc de Beauval has more than 4,000 wild animals. With only two lesser pandas from China, it hoped to adopt two giant pandas from Chengdu, she said.

In November, the 2006 Annual Meeting of China Giant Panda Breeding Technology Committee will be held in Thailand.

Delord told Jing that ZooParc de Beauval will contact his research base at the meeting, and that she would visit Chengdu and represent ZooParc de Beauval to talk about the adoption of pandas.

The giant panda also attracted business leaders in the reception.

Gerard Brown, president of Elg, a garment manufacturing giant in France, said that he hoped to co-operate with Chengdu to market a garment with the logo of the giant panda.

It would sell well, he said assuredly.

When the Chengdu delegation held a reception to promote the giant panda in Zoo Berlin in Germany on August 6, Max Raabe, a promoter of the 2006 FIFA German World Cup named by the Cup's Organizing Committee, attended the reception.

Raabe, a famous musician in Germany, said that he would be glad to promote the giant panda through the road show in Germany if artists in Chengdu created excellent works relating to the subject.

Holding two toys of the giant panda in his hands, Raabe said that he would send on the pair which had been sent to him by the Chengdu panda delegation to children.

"It would surely bring them ultimate joy," he said.

Jurgen Lange??president of Zoo Berlin, came to Chengdu in 1981. He said: "Bao Bao and Yan Yan, the two pandas in my zoo, came to the zoo from Sichuan in 1980. Thanks to the pair, the number of visitors to the zoo has been steadily on the rise in recent year to register 2.3 million last year."

According to Lange, both panda are well in Berlin. "But it's a pity that Yan Yan, the female panda, has never conceived a cub," he said.

Lange said that the media were always guessing when Yan Yan would be pregnant. Whenever there was a slight change with Yan Yan, the media would consider whether it was pregnant. "The two pandas are real stars in Berlin," he said.

On the morning of August 12 when the Chengdu delegation promoted the giant panda in the Vienna Zoo in Austria, more than 1,000 visitors wrote their best wishes and signed their names on a gigantic piece of cloth voluntarily to show their endorsement of the conservation of the giant panda.

The panda delegation held a reception in Bangkok on the morning of September 19 to promote the giant panda. That evening, the Thai military launched a coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Because of the coup, the delegation did not expect the local media to cover its promotion.

"But on the morning of September 20 and 21, we found some leading local newspapers had carried the news and photos of the delegation in important positions," said Zhou Mengqi, chief of the delegation and secretary-general of the Chengdu Municipal Association for External Cultural Exchanges with Foreign Countries.

Ordinary citizens in Bangkok showed great concern for the delegation, too.

"Many people called us or came to the Grand Mercure Hotel where we lived to inquire about our itinerary," said Zhang Yuanlong, a reporter with the Chengdu Economic Daily.

The hotel charged 18 Baht for copying a piece of paper and 150 Baht for surfing the Internet for one hour.

"But on the evening of September 20, the staff of the hotel did not charge the delegation after they learned that we were copying paper relating to the promotion of the giant panda. They also postponed the time of closure of the Business Centre for half an hour and didn't charge," Zhang said.

After something went wrong with the vidicon of a cameraman of the delegation, he went to the Headquarters of the Sony Corp in Thailand on the morning of September 21.

"When the vidicon replayed the reception to promote the giant panda, the repairers shouted excitedly in English 'panda, panda' and didn't charge the maintenance fee. They said they had read the reports about the reception and considered what we did very meaningful," said Deng Jun, the cameraman.

On the morning of September 26, the delegation arrived in the Kobe Oji Zoo in Japan to see the Xing Xing and Dan Dan, the two giant pandas from Sichuan which had lived in Japan for six years.

While crossing the 500-metre-long panda street leading to the zoo, members of the delegation were given a pleasant surprise.

Logos of the giant pandas, which could be spotted in the signposts and on the covers of the catch pits of the street, ushered in customers in front of shops or were drinking beer in front of restaurants.

According to Osamu Ishikawa, director of the zoo, some restaurants even turned their food into the shape of the giant panda.

Ishikawa said that more than 1,000 visitors to the zoo joined in the naming of the pair of pandas when they arrived six years ago.

Member of the panda delegation happened to meet a Japanese retiree in the zoo. The 62-year-old man said that he spent more than five months each year in the zoo, taking pictures of the giant panda and other animals.

"I carry the pictures in my website to share them with people from across the world. I also collect suggestions pertaining to improvement in the protection of the giant panda and pass on the suggestions to the zoo," he said.

(China Daily October 8, 2006)

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