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Giant Panda Couple to Set Off for Spain
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A pair of giant pandas left their southwest China home on Friday afternoon to start the first leg of their journey to Madrid, where they will stay for ten years as a goodwill gesture promised during a visit by Spanish King Juan Carlos to Beijing earlier this year.

The pair, seven-year-old Bing Xing and four-year old Hua Zui Ba, was flown from their home at a giant panda breeding and research base in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, to Shanghai at 3:50 PM, sources with the base said.

Bing Xing, meaning "Ice Star", weighs 140 kg and is the heaviest at the Chengdu base. His bride Hua Zui Ba, which translates into "Flowery Mouth", weighs 93 kg and is also among the strongest.

Zoologists say both pandas are potentially productive, as Bing Xing has fathered twins and Hua Zui Ba entered estrus at three and a half years old, nearly a year earlier than normal. Her mother Cheng Cheng is among the most productive female pandas at the Chengdu base, having given birth to eight cubs, seven of whom survived.

The two bears will spend Friday night at Shanghai Pudong International Airport and will take a chartered plane to Madrid early on Saturday.

At the zoologists' request, airport authorities have arranged a special air-conditioned room for the pair in which the temperature will be maintained at 20 degrees Celsius, similar to their natural habitat in the mountains of southwest China.

The pandas will be accompanied by their own keepers from the Chengdu base and three zoo workers from Madrid throughout the trip, which is estimated to last at least 30 hours.

Panda keepers Li Mingxi and Zhang Liang rose at dawn on Friday to prepare the pandas' favorite food -- apples, corncakes and fresh bamboo leaves and bamboo shoots.

China and Spain launched an international cooperation program on the protection of endangered pandas in June, during Spanish King Juan Carlos I's six-day state visit.

The king is scheduled to host a grand ceremony next Friday to welcome the two pandas, said Jesus Fernandez, general manager of the Madrid Zoo.

He said the pair will meet the Spanish public two weeks after their arrival, depending on how quickly they adapt to their new surroundings.

Fernandez said the zoo has arranged a comfortable pen for each of them, equipped with air-conditioners, humidifiers and closed-circuit surveillance systems to keep an eye on them 24 hours a day.

They will also have an outdoor recreation area with a small pond and a seesaw.

Fernandez said the lush bamboo forests in the suburbs of Madrid will provide ample food for the pandas, and in case of shortage, fresh bamboo can also be imported from neighboring countries including France and Portugal.

The giant panda is one of the world's rarest animals, with about 1,590 living in the wild in China, mostly in the southwest of the country. Another 210 have been bred in captivity.

China has been raising pandas through artificial insemination and breeding for nearly 50 years. The number of newborns rose to 34 with 30 surviving last year. Both were record figures.


(Xinhua News Agency September 7, 2007)

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