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Winter 2010 Updates

March 9

volunteers planting bambooTai Shan moved out of quarantine today and is now in an exhibit known as Villa #5 (he'll move to Villa #1 after it's been renovated and updated). Many members of the Chinese media attended the celebration to mark the occasion, and about 30 volunteers participated, including three from the United States and one from Malaysia. The volunteers also planted a small patch of bamboo together.

See a video of Tai exploring his new home.

Tai Shan seems to have adapted to his new home in Bifengxia quite well and has grown from 192 pounds a month ago to 198 pounds now.

Villa #5 is in the Baozishan area of the base, where another ten pandas between the ages of two and four are living. The outdoor area has a playground and many trees. A video camera has been installed and is undergoing testing. The public will soon be able to see Tai Shan online again!

March 5

Like all of Tai Shan’s fans, we're interested in learning how he adapts to his new habitat after quarantine. It looks like Tai Shan will make the move on March 9.

March 1

We recently heard that Tai Shan is very well and happy at Bifengxia. He has fully adapted to his new surroundings, and is eating lots of bamboo, "panda bread," and fruit every day. At the end of the week, quarantine will end, and a celebration will be held to mark Tai's move into his new home, often referred to as No. 1 Villa.

February 24

We've gotten word that Tai Shan settled in well in his quarantine enclosure. His appetite is good—he's eating the new bamboo and is even warming up to the "panda bread" shown on the tray in the photo below the panda cam. It snowed in Bifengxia during the first week of the Chinese New Year celebration, creating a white playground for Tai. As was his habit at the National Zoo, Tai Shan went right outside to play and enjoy the beauty of his forested wonderland. Our colleagues at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda wish all of Tai Shan’s friends warm New Year blessings and welcome all visitors.

February 23

We just learned from a colleague at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda that Tai Shan is responding to Chinese language commands pretty well. He understands his keeper's requests to stand up and sit down. His appetite is also good.

February 22

We had hoped to get news to everyone sooner but the Chinese New Year celebration has slowed down communications a bit. Thanks for your patience!

Tai Shan's primary keeper, BoogieTai Shan's primary keeper at Bifengxia is Wu Daifu (nicknamed Boogie), shown at right with National Zoo keeper Nicole Meese. Boogie was born and raised in Wolong, so giant pandas have been a part of his life for as long as he can remember. He left Wolong to study hydroelectric power at a university but a job offer working with giant pandas brought him back to Wolong. He now has more than ten years of experience with these magnificent bears.

Tai Shan is lucky to have Boogie as a new keeper. He is experienced, possesses great knowledge of giant pandas, and has just the right character and temperament for Tai Shan. When saying goodbye, Boogie complimented Nicole on her care and stewardship of Tai Shan and pledged to do the same for him in his new home.

If you're interested in the chance of a lifetime, consider volunteering for the three-day event marking the end of Tai Shan's quarantine. Volunteers will have to pay for their own transportation to and from Bifengxia and cover their own food and lodging costs, but will have an unforgettable opportunity to meet Tai Shan and take care of him with a keeper. More information can be found on the China Giant Panda Protection Research Center website (you can use an online translator—and read "Tarzan" as "Tai Shan!"); prospective volunteers can send an email to the volunteer recruiter at
zengcx@chinapanda.org.cn.

February 5

Tai Shan has arrived safely at his new home at Wolong’s Bifengxia Base in Ya’an, Sichuan. The 184-pound panda arrived in Chengdu today at 4:26 p.m. local time, and reached Bifengxia Base at about 9 p.m. He was welcomed at his new home by more than 100 people, including a children's dance team. He entered quarantine in the Base's indoor holding area, where he will remain for 30 days before making his public debut to visitors of the Bifengxia Base. The Zoo veterinarian and keeper who traveled with him—veterinarian Nancy Boedeker and keeper and trainer Nicole Meese—also arrived safely, and Nicole is headed to Bifengxia Base.

His 15-hour non-stop flight departed Dulles International Airport at 12:10 p.m. yesterday via a FedEx 777 plane, also known as the “Panda Express.” Tai Shan was transported in a custom-made, spacious, steel crate. He was trained to enter and calmly remain in the crate to prepare him for the trip to China. Tai Shan was not sedated for the journey. Throughout his journey, he traveled exceptionally well, eating bamboo and fruit during the entire trip. Nicole, the keeper who traveled with him, said he was a "rock star"!

Under the Zoo’s agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association, Tai Shan will take part in a panda breeding program at the Bifengxia Base. The Zoo successfully negotiated two extensions with the China Wildlife Conservation Association, which allowed the Zoo to keep Tai Shan for two and a half years beyond the original two-year contract.

February 4

See video from this morning.

Tai Shan officially began his journey to China early this morning, leaving the Zoo at 9:04 a.m. The four-and-a-half-year-old panda is on his way to Dulles International Airport, where he will board a FedEx 777 plane bound for Chengdu. The non-stop flight will take about 14 hours. Over the years, Tai Shan has become a celebrity in Washington, and will now take on a new role in China as part of a panda breeding program at Wolong’s Bifengxia Panda Base in Ya’an, Sichuan.

Since his birth July 9, 2005, Tai Shan, whose name means “peaceful mountain,” has attracted millions of visitors worldwide to the National Zoo and to the Zoo’s panda cams. The Zoo successfully negotiated two extensions with the China Wildlife Conservation Association, which allowed the Zoo to keep Tai Shan for two and a half years beyond the original two-year contract.

“Tai Shan’s departure is bittersweet for his fans and the Zoo staff, as he has been a true ambassador for the giant panda species in the United States over the past four and a half years,” said Steven Monfort, the Zoo’s acting director. “Because we had the opportunity to keep him longer, our Chinese partners have allowed us to learn more about giant pandas by charting his growth and development. But the time has come to say goodbye, and we know Tai’s next phase will be to help save his species in China.”

Tai Shan is expected to depart from Dulles about noon today and is traveling in a steel crate that measures 77 1/2 inches long, 56 1/2 inches wide and 50 inches tall. He will have fruit (pears are his favorite), vegetables, biscuits and about 55 pounds of bamboo to keep him fed during his journey. Tai Shan will not be the only bear aboard the “FedEx Panda Express.” Zoo Atlanta’s three-year-old giant panda, Mei Lan, is joining him on her voyage to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Tai Shan will be accompanied by Zoo veterinarian Nancy Boedeker and keeper and trainer Nicole Meese.

FedEx has donated the transportation and logistical services to both the National Zoo and Zoo Atlanta. The “FedEx Panda Express,” with a panda decal on its fuselage, is a 777F aircraft designed to carry only the pandas and their human companions on the 8,600-mile flight.

“I am honored to be able to accompany Tai Shan to his new home in China,” Meese said. “Tai has touched so many people, not only those of us who are lucky enough to know and work with him personally but also those who watched him from a distance. We’ll all be looking forward to the day when Tai Shan becomes a father, ensuring another generation of pandas for all to enjoy.”

In the meantime, Zoo staff and volunteers will be monitoring its female panda—Tai Shan’s mother, Mei Xiang—for indications that she is pregnant. In January, a team of Zoo scientists and collaborators performed two flawless artificial inseminations, but it will take 90 to 185 days to determine whether she is carrying a cub. The contract for Mei Xiang and Tai Shan’s father, Tian Tian, expires in December and the Zoo will negotiate for an extension.

“We’re confident giant pandas will always reside at the National Zoo,” said Don Moore, the Zoo’s associate director of animal care sciences. “From Tai Shan, Smithsonian’s researchers learned valuable information about panda behavior, while his parents have taught us more about the reproductive process unique to pandas. We’re looking forward to continuing this vital research with our adult pandas and, fingers crossed, with another cub.”

The National Zoo is a recognized leader in the care and study of the giant panda. The Zoo has worked for decades to conserve this endangered species and intends to continue its commitment to giant panda research in situ and at the Zoo. About 1,600 giant pandas exist in the wild, and nearly 300 live in zoos and research facilities in China and around the world.

January 28

Tai Shan will be leaving the Zoo for China on February 4. He'll head to Dulles International Airport in the morning and fly directly to Chengdu, China, with a keeper and veterinarian from our zoo. He won't be the only giant panda onboard the “FedEx Panda Express.” Mei Lan, the three-year-old female panda born at Zoo Atlanta, will be making the trip too. The plane will take off in the late morning and land in Chengdu about 14 and a half hours later. After an arrival ceremony at the airport in Chengdu, the pandas will be driven to their new homes to begin the next phase of their participation in the panda conservation and breeding program. The National Zoo staff traveling with him will stay in China for a week as he transitions to life in his new home at Bifengxia Panda Base in Ya’an, Sichuan. We expect to get updates during this time.

We hope you can join us at our Farewell to Tai Shan event this Saturday!

January 11

Mei XiangThe Zoo’s giant panda mating season began earlier than expected again this year. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian attempted to mate on Saturday. Over the course of a few hours, Zoo staff carefully observed the pandas’ activities and, because competent mating did not occur, Zoo scientists and veterinarians performed a nonsurgical artificial insemination later that evening and again Sunday morning. Both pandas were anesthetized, allowing the scientists to collect semen from Tian Tian and insert it directly into Mei Xiang’s uterus.

It appears a new January ovulation pattern is emerging for Mei Xiang; until last year, typical ovulation for her has historically occurred in March or April. Giant pandas have one very brief breeding season each year, with only a day or two of actual mating. The early start of these past two seasons is unusual, but the expertise of the Zoo’s staff enabled them to immediately identify signs of this early reproductive activity and prepare for an artificial insemination.

Early last week, the Zoo’s animal care team noticed Mei Xiang exhibiting signs of an early estrus, including distinctive vocalizations that are associated with mating season. Staff immediately began monitoring the hormone levels in her urine, which allowed them to predict the exact moment she had ovulated. Timing is crucial—female giant pandas only have about one day a year in which conception can occur.

There is no conclusive study that indicates what causes panda ovulation. Although scientists know that giant pandas mostly breed in late winter to early spring, it is not known if the onset of reproductive activity is triggered by increasing day length, temperature, or some other environmental factor.

Zoo staff separated Mei Xiang and Tian Tian before performing the artificial insemination. They will remain separated for the next few months, until Mei Xiang either delivers a cub or Zoo scientists determine that she is not pregnant. Keeping the pandas separated will reduce the risk of increased stress-hormone levels in Mei Xiang, which could jeopardize a developing embryo. Panda gestation typically lasts from 90 to 185 days. Veterinarians and scientists will monitor Mei Xiang’s hormone levels and perform ultrasounds to determine if she is pregnant.

January 6

Winter is the season for pandas. They arise early and eager for the great outdoors. The keepers cannot place their bamboo fast enough. Appetites are up to speed and everyone is shredding the bamboo culm, or stalk. It is the time of year when you arrive and the indoor enclosures are completely destroyed by shredded bamboo culm, and there is poop everywhere! Just to make it especially messy, the pandas have also jumped in and out of their pools a few times, so everything is very wet. Pandas are poor processors of bamboo, having the typical short intestinal tract of a carnivore. Seventy-five percent of what they eat passes right on through! Hence their energy-conserving lifestyle of sleeping and eating. And passing out fibrous poop.

Tian Tian in the snowAfter watching the pandas go wild over the years in our usual six-inch snowfalls, it was interesting to see their reaction to 17 inches, which we got just before Christmas. Apparently, it was over the threshold for play, and the trio chose to mostly hang out by the buildings and fence lines where the keepers had previously shoveled. When they did venture out, with great effort, their low-hung bodies made perfect ploughs through snowy drifts, leaving a trail of deep troughs behind! As the snow melted, playful pandas complied and treated us to their frosted and furry flurry of fun.

We are enjoying every moment we have with our pandas. The new year brings with it significant change with Tai Shan moving to China to join the main breeding population. As Tai fulfills his destiny, we nostalgically look back at all the wonderful times we have shared. We also look forward with renewed hope for a successful 2010 breeding season right here in D.C.!

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