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Studying panda’s is difficult because their habitat is so mountainous, steep and densely forested. Bamboo forests are particularly thick and difficult to navigate through. Scientists researching pandas in the wild subdue pandas with tranquilizer guns, hire farmers to carry them, and extract blood samples for genetic studies.

Modern techniques used in the study of pandas includes using satellites to determine the extent and conditions of their habitat; using heat-sensing camera traps to document animals; and outfitting pandas with radio transmitters. China has declined to allow much of this kind of research out worries of harming the pandas.

Pandas are kept at the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan for research as well as breeding purposes. In captivity, pandas are expensive to keep. Even in China where everything is very cheap it costs between $3,000 and $4,000 annually to keep a panda supplied with bamboo. Add in housing and medical care and the cost rises to $12,500. The total cost for keeping a panda in a zoo in the United is $2.6 million.

Much of the money earmarked for panda conservation comes from sources outside of China. For a time China’s support was less than what many people expected. A former World Wildlife Fund official told the Washington Post in the 1990s, "The Chinese are pointing a gun to the head of the panda and saying, 'If you want to keep it, fund it. Otherwise we're going to let it go.'" These days the Chinese government is very much invloved in protecting and saving pandas.

Millions of dollars has been raised by conservation groups to help the panda. In the Pennies for Panda fund raising drive, American school children gave five million pennies to help save the panda. The World Wildlife Fund uses the panda as its symbol and has helped raise millions of dollars to help pandas and dozens of other endangered animals.

The giant panda is one of the best-known symbols in the world, used to sell everything from electronic goods to fizzy drinks, chocolate to biscuits, liquorice to cigarettes---not to mention global conservation. The Chengdu research Base of Giant Panda Breeding sells odor-free souvenirs such as photo frames, bookmarks and Olympics-themed statues made form panda dung.

Captive and Trained Pandas

There were 126 pandas in captivity as of November 1999, most of them in China. Seven were in U.S. zoos. Bored and stressed out pandas engage on abnormal repetitive behavior such as pacing and head tossing. To keep them entertained pandas are given "toys" such as tree branches, burlap bags stuffed with straw, apple pieces stuffed into bamboo and fruit-laden ice pops. Human contact appears to distress pandas.

It is said pandas will respond if their name is called. Pandas in captivity have been trained to do tricks. A panda named WeyWey, who may have been trained using electric shock, performed in the Shanghai Circus. He pushed a little car with a teddy bear panda inside and ate a meal with his trainer.

In 2007, a drunken construction worker climbed into a panda enclosure at the Beijing Zoo and tried to hug the panda there. After being bitten by the panda he tried to bite the panda back, saying afterwards, “Its fur was too thick.”

Pandas Attacks and Calm Pandas

Gu Gu, a 110-kilogram male at the Beijing Zoo, attacked people on three different occasions after they entered his enclosure. In 2007 he bit a drunken tourist who jumped in his pen and tried to hug him. In 2009 he bit the leg of a man who climbed over a 1.4-meter barrier into the pen to retrieve a dropped toy and wouldn’t let go until zookeepers used tools to pry his jaws open. In a stand-up fight with the average human almost any animal larger than a Labrador will win, though there is a story a heroic Chinese man once kick-boxed a panda to a draw.

Males have been put through “sexercise” aimed at strengthening their pelvic and leg muscles so the can mate.

Pandas like to be stroked and touched. Using a technique called “living heart action” the pandas are touched, pet and talked to in a calm, smooth voice. The technique was first to calm pandas so dosages of anaesthetic could reduced when performing tests. Using the techniques, researchers now need 10 percent less sedatives than they used to when performing medical procedures. The technique was also used to calm pandas traumatized by the 2008 earthquake.

Pandas can be caressed and played with until they are two years old but after that the going can get a little rough and occasionally draw blood, After they are four they are too strong and unprotected interaction with them is dangerous.

Rent-a-Panda Program

A "rent a panda" program was set up to earn money for panda research, breeding and projects that help protect and preserve pandas. Pandas have been rented out for as much $1 million a year for a pair. The National Zoo in Washington D.C. and Atlanta Zoo each paid $10 million for two pandas for 10 years. The Ueno Zoo in Tokyo got four pandas for the same price. Zoos in Switzerland, Canada, South Korea, Thailand and the Netherlands have paid $30,000 to $70,000 a month to borrow pandas for up to four months.

The rented pandas are taken from a captive population of about 90 pandas in China. China retains ownership of the pandas and any babies they produce. The process of acquiring a panda can be quite complicated, requiring reams of paperwork and waits of up to several years. Most end up in zoos, but one conservationist said "even state fairs want them."

The process is technically viewed as a partnerships between the Chinese government and the participating zoo or country. Money earned from the rent-panda programs is earmarked for panda conservation, training conservationists, installing communications networks, creating environmental education programs for schools near protected areas, and restoring degraded bamboo forests.

Some have complained that the program has been used to make large profits for zoos. When the San Diego rented a pair of pandas for 200 days in 1987 and 1988 attendance increased by a third and the zoo made more than $5 million through the sale of panda T-shirts and other merchandise.

For a while the program was shut down on the grounds that animals captured for captivity contributed to the extinction of the species. The United States banned the import of pandas for five years in the 1990s. Only after certain rules were implemented was the program restarted. One of the central rules now is that pandas must have come from captivity not the wild.

In September 2007 the Chinese government said it would no longer give out pandas as gifts. One official said the animals would only be lent out for “breeding and biological research.” In 2012, a pair of pandas was given to a zoo in Edinburgh, Scotland on a ten-year loan after five years of negotiations and a detailed inspection of the zoo by Chinese officials.

Panda Diplomacy

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Panda papercut
The Chinese government likes to uses pandas as a diplomatic gesture and periodically Beijing gives a pair of pandas to countries as a sign of goodwill. The tradition dates back to A.D. 7th century when Tang Dynasty Empress Wu Zeuan gave a pair to a Japanese emperor.

Between 1958 and 1982, Beijing sent pandas to nine countries, including Japan and Mexico, One of the primary goals of a visit by British Prime Minister Edward Heath to China in 1974 was to secure a panda.

There are currently pandas in the United States, Mexico, Japan, Germany, Austria and Thailand. They like all pandas are property of the Chinese government. Offspring of pandas born outside China are allowed to live with their parents for two years but after that they can be called back to China at any time.

Pandas and the United States

For a long time the most famous pandas in the United States were Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, a male-female pair given by China to the American people in 1972 after Nixon's historic visit to China. The pandas went a long way towards warming relations between the United States and China. Some have said they did more for Sino-American relations than Henry Kissinger and should have been considered for the Nobel Peace Prize. In return, the United States gave China a pair of musk oxen.

Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were placed in the National Zoo in Washington D.C. Nixon never went to see them but his wife did. Ling-ling died in 1992 of a heart attack. She had five babies in four pregnancies. None survived more than four days. Hsing-Hsing died in 1999 at the age of 28 after a long bout with kidney disease. In 2000, the Washington zoo welcomed a new pair of pandas---Mei Xiang and Tian Tian-obtained for $10 million for 10 years through the Rent-a-Panda program.

As of 2006, there were 10 pandas in the United States: two in Washington, two in Atlanta, two in Memphis and four in San Diego.

As of 2006, only four pandas had been bred in captivity in the United States (three in San Diego and one on Washington). In the summer of 2005, a baby panda named Tai Shan was born to Tian Tian and Mei Xiang at the National Zoo in Washington. The cub was monitored round the clock by closed circuit cameras with volunteer researchers recording every yawn and paw twitch and other behaviors they observed. A half million people came to see her at the zoo in the first four months after her public debut. Millions have watched her on the “panda cam” on the zoo’s web site.

A big deal was made about how sad everyone was about sending back Tai Shan to China. Tai Shan from the National Zoo in Washington and another young panda born at a zoo in Atlanta were flown back to China in February 2010.

Panda Diplomacy and Taiwan

The Chinese government offered a pair of pandas to Taiwan as a present when Taiwan’s Kuomintang leader Lien Chen visited China in 2005. In March 2006, Taiwan turned down the pandas, citing a lack of a proper place to keep them and saying China should allow a pair of pandas to remain in the wild rather than give a pair to Taiwan. A few months earlier Taiwan’s Prime Minister said the pandas “compromise our sovereignty” at around the same time that China announced that it had already picked out the pandas. Taiwan was angered that China announced the gift without consulting with them.

The Taiwanese President Chen Shui-ban said the move was propaganda to hide China’s intent to attack Taiwan. One Taiwanese lawmaker told the Los Angeles Times, “The pandas are a trick, just like the Trojan horse. Pandas are cute, but they are meant to destroy Taiwan’s psychological defenses.” Most ordinary Taiwanese disagreed,. One poll found that 70 percent of Taiwanese were in favor of accepting the pandas. Beijing scored a number of public relations points as it made public news about “trial marriages” to find the ideal pair to give Taiwan and gave details of their personalities, chemistry, hobbies (tree climbing) and even “language lessons” on Taiwan’s Minnan dialect.

In a country where people are not allowed to vote for leaders, Chinese were asked to vote for the names they liked best for the pandas given to Taiwan. The winning names---Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan---were announced before hundreds of millions of viewers on China annual Chinese New Year television show.

China renewed its panda offer after a new president was elected in Taiwan in 2008.


In 2010 six "pambassadors" were selected and subjected to a five-week training program which including tracking wild pandas in the forest and raising cubs at the research center. The six won an online competition that was launched in August by the base with the support of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to find six people who could spend October in Southwest China's Sichuan province learning all about the pandas. [Source: Matt Hodges, China Daily, November 8, 2011]

The pambassadors' tasks included building panda beds, making the animals exercise through elaborate hunt-for-food games, and cooking panda "mooncakes" to supplement their diet of bamboo and water. They also trained the pandas to accept blood tests without the need for unsafe anesthetic darts. On being selected France's David Algranti, one of two Europeans on the team, said, "It was kind of like being on a reality TV show...We had to go through all these stages and qualifiers. It was a bit like American Idol. Then you're in the mud and running through the jungle, and it's like Survivor." [Ibid]

Over 60,000 applicants were whittled down to 12 on the basis of video presentations and an online voting campaign to attract the public to the base's website. After spending a week at the base in late September, the six winners were chosen. They included mainlander Huang Xi, 26; Taiwan model and fledgling TV celebrity Wang Yu-wen, 23; Japan's Yumiko Kajiwara, 35; Sweden's Ali Shakorian, 26; Algranti, 34, and Ashley Robertson, a 25-year-old American from Florida. They joined Hong Kong action stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li, among others, as Chengdu's ambassadors for the giant panda. [Ibid]

Art Made Panda Excrement

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “To some discerning eyes, the statue is a satire of classical aesthetics that judge beauty by Western standards. To others, the use of natural, recyclable materials shows the artist's commitment to the environment. And then there was this observation, posted on the artist's blog. "Disgusting, disgusting, disgusting!!!" [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, December 19, 2010]

“The artwork in question is a copy of the classical Greek statue Venus de Milo, made out of raw material supplied by China's most beloved mammals. In other words, panda excrement. Lest anybody badmouth it as just another piece of, well, excrement, it should be noted that a retired Swiss diplomat who is one of the leading collectors of modern Chinese art paid $50,000 for the 2-foot-tall statue by Zhu Cheng, a sculptor from Chengdu, home to China's main panda breeding reserve.” [Ibid]

“Zhu gained some notoriety for a controversial fashion show in which models, dressed entirely in black and white like pandas, portrayed some of the less desirable elements of Chinese society, such as corrupt officials and prostitutes. He said his inspiration for the excrement piece came from the stark contrast between the preciousness of the panda (literally priceless, in that China does not permit the animal to be sold and only lends them to zoos) and the prodigious amount of waste they produce. (An adult panda defecates about 40 times per day, producing nearly 45 pounds of waste.) "Venus is a beautiful figure," Zhu said. "But by creating the statue out of excrement, we set up an internal conflict between beauty and waste that makes for a magical work of art." “[Ibid]

Reactions to the Venus de Milo run the gamut---amusement, appreciation, bewilderment and disgust. "I think it's very creative, the way the artist is using such environmentally friendly material," said Li Chunyang, a hospital worker from Zhengzhou who had taken a day off to bring her 5-year-old daughter, Xiangxiang. The girl was less impressed. "Yuck. I'm scared," she said, refusing to approach the display case too closely. The curator of one show with the piece had mixed feelings: "I think it is a good piece from an artistic point of view, but personally I wouldn't collect it. I wouldn't want poop in my home, even poop from a panda." [Ibid]

“Zhu made the sculpture with the help of a dozen elementary school pupils in a Chengdu youth center who weren't afraid to get their hands dirty for the sake of art. They're now considering something more ambitious---a life-size panda poo rendition of Michelangelo's David. "The kids didn't wear gloves. Neither did I," Zhu said. Because the pandas eat a mostly vegetarian diet, Zhu said, their droppings did not have a distasteful odor. "I was surprised. It smelled more like tea." [Ibid]

“The most difficult part was obtaining the raw material. Although the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, with 83 pandas, had no shortage of panda dung, the management was initially suspicious of Zhu's request."Now, why do you need this?" Zhu recalled the management asking him repeatedly. Once convinced that Zhu was legitimate, the reserve allowed his team of students to collect buckets of fresh droppings. Each one was about the size of a goose egg, with sticks of partially digested bamboo poking out. To make it the proper consistency for sculpting, it was mixed with plaster and glue.” [Ibid]

Panda Art Exhibition

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The Venus de Milo was shown with other panda excrement creations by Zhu and his volunteers at a Chengdu art gallery before moving last month to the Henan Provincial Art Museum in Zhengzhou as part of a larger exhibition exploring the theme of human interactions with pandas.” [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, December 19, 2010]

“The Henan show was curated by Zhao Bandi, a flamboyant Beijing-based artist who calls himself the Panda Man. He is perhaps best known for an unsuccessful campaign in 2008 to boycott the film "Kung Fu Panda," on the grounds that Hollywood was exploiting China's national treasure. "I like to use the panda as a device to explore what China is really like," said Zhao, who was dressed in his emblematic panda colors: black-and-white-striped pants, a black turtleneck and a black wool cap pulled low over intensely knit eyebrows. Sitting on a folding chair in the exhibit hall at the Henan museum, he clutched a stuffed panda on his lap.” [Ibid]

“All the artwork in the show was for sale, with proceeds earmarked to build a nursing home. The point was to exploit the cuteness of the most pampered mammal in China to help some of the nation's most neglected inhabitants---the elderly."The attention lavished on the panda is much better than what old people receive in China," Zhao said.” [Ibid]

“Among the works on display were a series of photographs of naked schoolboys with black grease paint under their eyes, like pandas, splashing in the Yellow River, and a panda sculpture made of discarded appliances---the head was an old television, the body a washing machine, and stereo speakers formed the big black ears. The assemblage was put together by a 12-year-old boy whose father is a garbage collector.” [Ibid]

World's Most Expensive Tea: Grown from Panda Droppings

In January 2012, AFP reported: “Chinese entrepreneur An Yanshi is convinced he has found the key ingredient to produce the world's most expensive tea---panda dung. The former calligraphy teacher has purchased 11 tonnes of feces from a panda breeding centre to fertilise a tea crop in the mountains of Sichuan province in southwestern China. An says he will harvest the first batch of tea leaves this spring and it will be the "world's most expensive tea" at almost 220,000 yuan ($35,000) for 500 grams (18 ounces). [Source: Allison Jackson, AFP, January 10, 2012]

Chinese tea drinkers regard the first batch of tea to be harvested in the early spring as the best and successive batches, regarded as inferior, will sell for around 20,000 yuan. The 41 year-old, who is so passionate about his new project he dressed in a panda suit for his interview with AFP, has been ridiculed by some in China for his extravagant claims of the potential health benefits of the tea.

But he insists he is deadly serious, saying he quit his job at Sichuan University to throw himself "heart and soul" into his company, Panda Tea, whose logo features a smiling panda wearing a bow tie and holding a steaming glass of green tea. While An hopes to make money from the tea, which he has planted on just over a hectare (2.5 acres) of land, his main mission is to convince the world to protect the environment and replace chemical fertilisers with animal feces---before it is too late.

"Panda dung is rich in nutrition ... and should be much better than chemical fertilisers," An said, as he sat at a traditional Chinese tea table drinking tea grown with cow manure. "People should make a harmonious relationship with heaven, earth and the environment," An said. "Everybody has an obligation to protect the environment," he added, as he showed AFP dozens of traditional Chinese scroll paintings that he has created of cheerful-looking pandas, bamboo and calligraphy.

The tea aficionado got the idea to use panda faeces as fertiliser after attending a seminar last year where he discovered that the bears absorbed less than 30 per cent of the bamboo they consumed, excreting the remaining 70 per cent. An showed journalists a glass jar of fresh-looking panda faeces, which he uses to fertilise two tea plants in his office, noting the "quality" and "green" colour of the dung. He is so convinced that Panda Tea will be a hit that he has patented the idea to prevent a competitor stealing it---a common occurrence in a country where laws protecting intellectual property rights are often flouted.

His claim that the green tea will help people lose weight and protect them from radiation has been ridiculed by some Chinese web users, who have expressed doubts about the purported health benefits of the tea and the high asking price for the first harvest. "If it is such a good fertiliser for tea plants, I want to ask this teacher: why don't you just eat panda dung? Then you can get the rest of the 70 per cent nutrition," a web user called Baihuashu said. Another web user called 24-0 said: "Over 200,000 yuan per jin (500 grams) for panda tea fertilised by panda droppings---is that for drinking tea or drinking pandas' blood?"

On the same story, Reuters reported: “China's national treasure, the giant panda, will become even more precious if one businessman succeeds in using their dung to grow organic green tea he intends to sell for over $200 a cup. An Yanshi, an entrepreneur in southwest China, grows the tea in mountainous Ya'an in Sichuan province using tons of excrement from panda bears living at nearby breeding centers. The first batch of panda dung tea will be sold in lots of 50 grams that will cost some 22,000 yuan ($3,500) each, a price An said makes it the world's most expensive tea. Most people use about 3 grams of tea per cup. An defended the steep price, saying he would channel profits from the initial batches into an environmental fund. Future batches would be cheaper, he added. "I thank heaven and earth for blessing us with this environmental panda tea," the 41-year-old former teacher and journalist said at a weekend event to promote the tea. "I just want to convey to the people of the world the message of turning waste into something useful, and the culture of recycling and using organic fertilizers." [Source: Royston Chan, Reuters, March 19, 2012]

Dressed in a panda suit to promote his tea, An invited a dozen or so guests to help hand-pick the first batch of tea at his plantation at the weekend.The fertilizer made the tea a health boon, An said, because pandas only eat wild bamboo and absorb only a fraction of the nutrients in their food. And pandas make plenty of fertilizer. "They are like a machine that is churning out organic fertilizer." An said. "They keep eating and they keep producing feces." "Also, they absorb less than 30 percent of the nutrition from the food, and that means more than 70 percent of the nutrients are passed out in their feces. Just like green tea, bamboo contains an element that can prevent cancer ad enhance green’s anti-cancer effects, if it is used as fertilizer for tea.”

After brewing the first pickings, An described the tea as fragrant and smooth with “a mature, nutty tatse and a very distinctive aroma. Some of his guests, however, were not impressed. "It's sold at such a sky-high price, perhaps this is just hype," said 49-year-old Li Ximing.

Image Sources: 1) Xinhua; 2) Mongabey ; 3) Panda ailumela; 4) Nolls China website ; 5) WWF; 6) Beifan

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated December 2012

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