American-born panda can follow Sichuan dialect

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Munching on her favorite snack in a bamboo forest at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in the capital of Sichuan province, Mei Lan remained cold to a throng of journalists and visitors on Monday morning.

Giant panda 'Meilan' eats bamboo at the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Base in Chengdu, capital of southwest China's Sichuan Province, March 15, 2010. [Xinhua]

Giant panda "Meilan" eats bamboo at the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Base in Chengdu, capital of southwest China's Sichuan Province, March 15, 2010. [Xinhua photo]

It was the 3-year-old panda's first meeting with the public since her return from the United States on Feb 5.

"The once timid panda cub has adapted to her new home in Chengdu," base chief Zhang Zhihe said.

Mei Lan ended her month-long quarantine on March 11 and was moved to her new home in the No 2 Villa at the research base.

The 15-hour flight from the US and a change in diet had left Mei Lan initially restless.

"She used to run here and there, climb up and down the railings and breathe heavily. She refused to eat and her weight dropped from 88 kg to 84 kg," said Huang Xiangming, chief of the animal management department of the Chengdu base.

To help her adapt, the base only permitted a Chinese vet and keeper besides their American counterparts from Zoo Atlanta to get close to her.

Initially, Mei Lan did not understand the Sichuan dialect and only followed the instructions of her American keeper.

Zhang Lilan, the Chinese keeper, had to speak in English first and then repeat the same instructions in Sichuan dialect to train Mei Lan.

"When I asked her to eat an apple, I first said 'come here' in English and then 'guo lai' in Sichuan dialect. Several days later, Mei Lan could understand simple words in Sichuan dialect," he said.

While her American keeper left Chengdu last week, Mei Lan, who now understands simple Chinese, has started getting along with her Chinese keeper.

At first, Mei Lan was sensitive to the noise caused when Zhang moved bamboo around. To create a tranquil environment, Zhang had to move only one or two bamboo at a time, while the base closed its doors to journalists.

Just when Mei Lan was starting to adapt to her new environment, she was frightened by the deafening sound of firecrackers on the eve of Spring Festival on Feb 13. The base is located in the suburbs of Chengdu where people are allowed to light firecrackers.

"At times she even screamed. We had to close all the doors and windows in her habitat," Zhang said.

The base offers a special steamed bun made of various types of grain for all pandas older than 2. The delicious bun appeals to almost all panda cubs, but Mei Lan, who was used to a biscuit with high amounts of fiber in the US, did not like the bun.

"We had to imbue the bun in honey so that Mei Lan would show interest in it. Now Mei Lan is so fond of the bun that she eats it without honey," Zhang said.

As the bamboo she was eating in Zoo Atlanta is different from the type in Chengdu, Mei Lan did not initially adapted to the one in the base at first. She later fell in love with the new variety. However, this type of bamboo, which is not a major source of food for pandas, is rare, so the keeper had to offer her other common types of bamboo as well.

"She is now used to common bamboo in Chengdu and her appetite is as good as it was during her stay in the US," said Li Mingxi, a leading keeper in the animal management department.

"Mei Lan eats between 10 and 12 kg of bamboo and three apples a day. She has regained the weight she lost," Huang said.

Last week, Chengdu was sunny for several consecutive days. Keeper Zhang gave Mei Lan her first shower after her return to China.

"She did not fear water and rather enjoyed it. She looked much whiter after the bath and went to the playground and took a nap on the lawn. That's when she seemed like a typical resident of Chengdu, known for its laidback attitude," Zhang laughed.

Meanwhile, Xing Bang, the male panda born in Japan in August 2005, is expected to reach the base at noon on Tuesday.

The panda arrived at the Capital International Airport in Beijing from Tokyo on Monday evening .

He will be the fifth overseas panda to return to the Chengdu base after it started its international breeding program with the US and Japan in 1994, Zhang said.

Xing Bang will be in quarantine for a month before he is introduced to the public, he added.

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