The National Zoo's giant pandas get an extension from China with the hopes of producing more cubs. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar attended the signing today between the zoo and Chinese officials, inking the new five year deal. So Mei Xiang and Tian Tian will stick around for now, unless they fail to deliver a baby panda.
So far, there's been no frisky business between the zoo's two giant pandas but the hope is soon Mei Xiang will be eating for two or perhaps more. "Did I mention we're going for twins," said the National Zoo's Director, Dennis Kelly, before a swarm of American and Chinese media. "I'm very optimistic," he said. "We've got the best minds and the best practitioners working on it."
>>> CLICK HERE FOR A PHOTO GALLERY OF THE PANDAS
Mei Xiang and her male mate Tian Tian will remain at the zoo, under the new five year agreement. It extends the original 10 year lease, which expired in December.
After the signing ceremony, Kelly and Zang Chunlin, Secretary General of the China Wildlife Conservation Association, shook hands as the crowd cheered. "This is by all means a win, win agreement. It is a win for countless Americans who have fallen in love with these most amazing animals," said Sec. Salazar.
It was just last year, the panda pair's only offspring, Tai Shan, returned to China. Ambassador Chen Naiqing, wife of China Ambassador Zhang Yesui to the U.S., noted the American love affair with Tai Shan and the thousands who showed up defying the snow to say good-bye to him. "I am confident that through joint efforts our cooperation will grow, our friendship will deepen and our future will be brighter," Chen said of U.S.-China relations.
It's a rebirth in panda diplomacy that began with the arrival of the zoo's first pandas, Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing as a gift in 1972.
"We wish giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian will continue to live happily in the United States and give birth to a cub soon," said Secretary General Zang.
Zoo staff is now monitoring Mei Xiang for signs the panda is going into heat, which happened the last two years in January. If there's no cub within two years one or both pandas may be exchanged for others in China.
Kelly says Tian Tian is "producing all the correct ingredients" for a cub so the focus is on breeding issues with the female panda. "Production of pandas both in captivity and in the wild is a huge challenge," he said.
The new deal reduces the fee the zoo pays to China from about one million dollars to $500,000, which will go to support conservation efforts in China. Any cub born at the zoo will now stay four years instead of two before being returned. Tai Shan was granted a two year extension, but went back to China in February where he now lives at a panda preserve.
"Tai Shan is currently in good health and has made many more good friends," said Secretary General Zang.
The number of giant pandas has grown in the past two years and now stands at about 1600 in the wild and 312 in captivity. The zoo's female panda is now 12 years old, the male is 13. They remain a popular attraction at the zoo and any offspring would likely generate large crowds.
More than 200,000 people cast ballots to name their cub Tai Shan when he was born in July 2005. "We look forward to many wonderful years with these precious pandas," said Mary Kaye Huntsman, wife of U.S. Ambassador to China John Huntsman, Jr. Their daughter, Gracie, was adopted from China. Her first gift was a stuffed panda bear.
Each year, the annual pregnancy watch drums up excitement. It's about that time again, so let the mating game begin.
LINK: Giant Panda Habitat - National Zoo| FONZ
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