PANDA HUA MEI AND POTENTIAL SUITOR
Sun Shu  /  Xinhua via AP
Hua Mei, left, is seen last Saturday while still at the San Diego Zoo. At right is Zhuang Zhuang, one of three potential suitors waiting for her at China's Wolong Panda Nature Reserve.
msnbc.com news services
updated 2/13/2004 10:16:33 AM ET 2004-02-13T15:16:33

She’ll have to give up American cookies and get used to much cooler weather, but life in China could be worse on the eve of Valentine’s Day because Hua Mei already has three prospective suitors.

Hua Mei, a giant panda born at sunny California’s San Diego Zoo, arrived at her ancestral home in the chill and fog of southwestern China’s mountains late on Friday to become the first panda born abroad to return to the panda homeland.

After her two-day journey from America to Sichuan province, caretakers at the Wolong Nature Reserve said they had switched on the heating and set out a pile of the freshest home-grown bamboo to welcome her back to the motherland.

Quarantine first, then courtships
The four-and-a-half-year-old, the first U.S.-born endangered panda to live more than a few hours and whose name means China-America, faces a period of adjustment.

She will be quarantined for about a month, switch to Chinese biscuits and bamboo from U.S. varieties and adapt to temperatures as low as 27 below zero.

Then, if all goes as planned, it’s time to have some fun.

“We have chosen three male pandas,” said Wei Rongping, a reserve official. “We hope one or two could become her boyfriend later.”

She should get along just fine in Wolong’s White Dragon Valley, a mountainous area 60 miles from the provincial capital, Chengdu, Wei said. “The panda is a species that can easily adjust to a new environment,” he said. “It prefers cold climates to warm ones.

“Still, we built a new dormitory for her with a heating system, because Sichuan is colder than San Diego.”

For a month Hua Mei will live alone in the stilted wooden hut, heated to 41 degrees Fahrenheit, with a fenced-off yard of her own.

“The door to the outside is open,” said Wei. “She can decide for herself whether to go out.”

Diet changing too
During the long flight over, she was still eating fortified biscuits from the United States, but her Chinese keepers will begin gradually to alter her diet right away.

“We will offer her a small quantity of Chinese bamboo, Chinese-made biscuits and Chinese fruits today,” said Wei.

Only about 1,000 pandas are thought to be left living in the wild and about 150 in captivity, less than 20 of them outside China.

China has poured considerable resources into protecting the giant panda — a sort of unofficial mascot for the country — whose numbers have been depleted by low fertility, logging, poaching and periodic die-offs of their staple food, bamboo.

Hua Mei returned under the rules of China’s loan program, which requires cubs of panda pairs born abroad to be repatriated within three years. In panda terms, Hua Mei is a young adult and could become pregnant as early as this spring.

Her father, Shi Shi, returned last January and Hua Mei was to follow on his heels, but the deadly SARS outbreak delayed her voyage.

GIANT PANDAS WATCH WORKER SPRAY DISINFECTANT
China Photo  /  Reuters
The SARS outbreak led to extensive spraying at China's Wolong reserve. Here two giant pandas watch as a worker prepares to spray disinfectant.

It was unknown if she would ever be reunited with her father.

“He is in the Guangzhou Zoo now. He is very old,” said Wei.

Shi Shi’s 200-pound daughter has reached the prime age to reproduce, although pandas are notoriously hard to breed in captivity. They come on heat only once a year for a couple of days and can be highly selective about their mates.

“We chose the males according to their genes,” said Wei. “We want to avoid inbreeding.”

Back in U.S.
Three other giant pandas still reside at the San Diego Zoo: Hua Mei’s mother Bai Yun, her mate Gao Gao and their son Mei Sheng, or “American Born,” who was born last year.

Other U.S. zoos had seen female pandas give birth, but none of the offspring lived beyond a few days. Hua Mei was the first to grow up before the eyes of U.S. researchers.

The experience provided new insight into the early mother-cub relationship, the abrupt separation that occurs at about 18 months and the sexual development of a female cub.

A record 16 pandas were born in captivity last year, including San Diego’s Mei Sheng and twin cubs born in Japan.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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