The “chosen” one

Zhang Xiang, a 2-year-old giant panda cub born in Bifengxia and later raised in the semi-wild in Hetaoping by her mother with little help from the keepers, was released into the wild earlier today. She is the third young giant panda to be released under the CCRCGP’s “return to the wild” programme.

I remember wondering if Feng Yi would be chosen to be released into the wild. A male giant panda by the name of Xiang Xiang had been released the previous year when I first went to see her in September 2007. This question occurred to me after I observed her behaviour during the visit; she often preferred her own company and would be found up in the trees while the other cubs played together on the ground. I asked the two keepers looking after her yard, and they reassured me that she wouldn’t. Instead, and unknown to me or anyone in Wolong at the time, she would go on to be a successful candidate for an “overseas posting” a few years into the future.

Shortlisted and selected

I was told she and Fu Wa were one of three pairs shortlisted to be sent to Malaysia and eventually selected for the 10-year posting. How are pandas paired and chosen? As far as I know, pandas are sent on 10-year loans at the highest level: government to government. Once signed, the loans are assigned to a specific panda reserve to choose the suitable pandas. There was a time when pandas were gifts from the Chinese government as a gesture of goodwill. This practice stopped when China signed the 1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Today, instead of giving away its national treasures, China sends them out in pairs on 10-year loan agreements with chosen host countries. This gesture of goodwill has been called “panda diplomacy”; according to some, to be chosen is one of the highest honours any country could hope for.

Each loan agreement stipulates that a pair of pandas live in a designated location in the host country. In case anyone still doesn’t know, the designated location in Malaysia for Fu Wa and Feng Yi is Zoo Negara, not Putrajaya Wetlands Park; that was changed six months after the agreement was signed.

One of the objectives is successful captive breeding during the 10-year loan in an environment away from the mother country. To ensure this happens, the chosen pair should not be related, or at least not closely related; this is often difficult since many of the giant pandas under the CCRCGP are descended from one male panda. In the case of Fu Wa and Feng Yi, their choice as a pair had initially come in for some criticism as they are related. They share the same maternal grandfather; their mothers are sisters from the same patriarch, the venerable Pan Pan. However, this shared gene is offset by a wild gene in both of them from their fathers who were both rescued from the wild.

Personally, I think Malaysia is very fortunate to be chosen as the host country for this very special panda pair. They come to us with experience in various areas.

Seasoned Travellers

Most pandas chosen for overseas postings fly for the first time when they go to their host countries. In the case of Fu Wa and Feng Yi, both of them have not only flown before; each has flown a total of four times. Airsickness is nothing new to either of them.

They shared their first flight with six other pandas when they were flown from Chengdu to Beijing for the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics. They shared their second flight, again with the same six pandas, when they were returned from Beijing to Chengdu at the end of their 10-month Olympic stint. After that, they went separate ways, with Feng Yi flying to Guilin and returning after her almost three-year posting there, and Fu Wa going to Wenling and returning after a similar length of time. So, four flights in all for each other.

Experienced with being in the limelight

During their stay in Beijing, and along with the other six pandas, Fu Wa and Feng Yi were the toast of the Olympics. They played under the public eye of thousands of visitors both during and after the Olympics. By the time each of them arrived at their next posting, they were used to being in the limelight. Likewise, they will be ready for the Malaysian public after their arrival and stipulated quarantine period.

Experienced in parenting

Bifengxia’s decision to let Feng Yi mate earlier this year has resulted in a cub. She is currently raising her cub with some help from her keepers; they have described her as a good mother who knows how to care for her little one. I have seen this with my own eyes. By the time Feng Yi arrives in Malaysia, she will have the experience to mate, even to guide Fu Wa if necessary, and to care for their offspring when the time comes. In contrast, most other overseas-bound panda pairs are inexperienced in this area. The only other overseas-posted panda to have similar parenting experience is Edinburgh Zoo’s female panda Tian Tian who had twins before she went abroad.

Looking back, I am glad neither Fu Wa or Feng Yi were considered suitable candidates for the “return to the wild” programme. Looking ahead, I am confident they will do China proud when they arrive to take up residence in Malaysia. I can only hope that Zoo Negara will be worthy of this panda pair, not just in the giant panda house being built for them but also in the management of their care and also the continued care of the other animals at the zoo.