Care bears

08:59, November 09, 2010      

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Wang Yu-wen learns all about pandas during a five-week training program in Chengdu, Sichuan province.( China Daily )

Pambassadors (from left) Ashley Robertson, Wang Yu-wen, David Algranti, Huang Xi, Ali Shakorian and Yumiko Kajiwara.( China Daily )

Sweden's Ali Shakorian has a close encounter with a giant panda.( China Daily )

The protection of giant pandas is a black-and-white issue for the 'pambassadors' who recently graduated from a training program in Chengdu. Matt Hodges reports

Having spent the previous few days tracking wild pandas in a remote Chinese jungle, Florida resident Ashley Robertson returned to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding to find her cubs all grown up.

Robertson, one of six "pambassadors" who graduated from a five-week training program at the base to promote panda protection on Nov 5, found the cubs she had taken care of were bigger, naughtier and devouring stacks more bamboo.

"I kind of felt what it's like to be a mom," she said. "It was like they had suddenly grown up and I'd missed a step."

Not that the pandas are to be confused with pets. Even though the pambassadors were able to pick them up and play with them, getting a playful bite was a constant peril.

The 25-year-old 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.

"It was kind of like being on a reality TV show," said France's David Algranti, one of two Europeans on the team.

"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."

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.

This meant that 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 Robertson got to join Hong Kong action stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li, among others, as Chengdu's ambassadors for the giant panda.

Kungfu Panda 2, the sequel to DreamWorks Animation's hugely popular movie, will no doubt help if plans to premiere it in Chengdu next May come to fruition, as suggested by its CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. The movie includes regional elements such as the Dujiangyan irrigation project, a famous scenic spot, and Chengdu's traditional houses.

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.

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