US-born giant panda returns home to 'get married'

Giant panda Hua Mei returns home
Bidding farewell to the sunshine of San Diego, California, giant panda Hua Mei landed at 5:10 p.m. (Beijing Time) Thursday in Beijing, setting foot in her ancestral home for the first time in her life.

Li Desheng, a noted Chinese zoologist who escorted Hua Mei on board the plane, said that the giant panda, born in the United States on August 21, 1999 is in good shape and she was very calm and at ease throughout the 12-hour flight.

Two American zoologists were also taking care of Hua Mei on her trip back home.

They prepared fresh bamboo and tasty biscuits for her on the plane. "The 200-pound creature had a very good appetite!" Li said.

Hua Mei -- the first word means China and the second means the United States -- was born to Shi Shi and Bai Yun, a panda couple leased by China to the San Diego Zoo in California in 1996.

Hua Mei is the first overseas-born Chinese giant panda to return.

Hua Mei's parents went to the United States in 1996 as part of a 12-year research cooperation program between the two nations.

According to the cooperation contract, cubs of the panda couple belong to China and should be returned after they are three years old.

Hua Mei, now four and half years old, is a product of artificial fertilization, the first using the technology that was born in the United States and survived.

Hua Mei's return was delayed because of the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in China last year.

Hua Mei's father Shi Shi returned to Wolong in January last year. Currently, three giant pandas are living in the San Diego Zoo, namely, Bai Yun, her second husband Gao Gao, and their son Mei Sheng born last year.

Yan Xun, a prestigious Chinese expert of wildlife protection with the State Forestry Administration (SFA), said that Hua Mei will spend her first night in her homeland in a "very safe place" in Beijing.

After an overnight quarantine, Hua Mei is expected to leave for the Wolong Nature Preserve, dubbed a paradise of wildlife in southwest China's Sichuan province, Friday morning.

Upon her arrival in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, Yan said, the panda will be escorted by police cars for the two-hour ride to Wolong.

In the preserve built in 1963, Hua Mei will find more than 60 companions, which are all in captivity. The preserve also boasts some 100 giant pandas in wildness.

However, Hua Mei can enjoy the companionship of other pandas only after a month's isolation for quarantine in the preserve, added Yan.

The two eminent American experts said that many panda fans went to the San Diego zoo to say good-bye to Hua Mei one week before she left.

Though it is sad for Americans to see Hua Mei leave, Karen Sue Kearns, one of the American experts, said it is a happy thing for the giant panda to return to her homeland.

"We hope she enjoys her days at home," the expert said. "And I'll miss her."

Hua Mei is at a golden age for mating. So, Wang Pengyan, deputy director of the Wolong nature preserve, said that her return brings more hope to the breeding of giant pandas in China.

"We're well prepared for her return and are sure to be able to make her feel real at home," Wang said.

An endangered species in the world, the giant panda is dubbed a "state gem" in China. Currently, only approximately 1,000 giant pandas are estimated to live in the wild, all of whom are in China, while over 140 live in captivity in the world.

Altogether 24 giant pandas were given as gifts by China to nine countries in the 26-year period from 1957 to 1982.

China decided to no longer present giant pandas as gifts to other nations since 1985. Instead, the endangered animal can only go abroad by means of leasing and their offspring born in foreign countries belong to China.

After Hua Mei's return, 22 giant pandas are living outside China. Five of them were presented as gifts before 1985 and thus belong to foreign countries.

People's Daily Online ---