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Dry the tears: Panda likely to stick around

The National Zoo is expected to announce this morning that Tai Shan, the popular giant panda cub, will have his stay extended up to two years, according to sources familiar with the situation.
The one-year-old giant panda Tai Shan eats a bamboo stalk in the new panda habitat that opened Tuesday at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.Matthew Cavanaugh / EPA
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The National Zoo is expected to announce this morning that Tai Shan, the popular giant panda cub, will have his stay extended up to two years, according to sources familiar with the situation.

The zoo, which has been in negotiations with China to have Tai Shan stay longer, has scheduled an announcement for 9 a.m. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D); Zhou Wenzhong, China's ambassador to the United States; and John Berry, the zoo's director, are among those scheduled to attend.

Zoo spokesman John Gibbons would not comment on the announcement beyond saying that the news is "good, not bad."

In January, the zoo said on its Web site that, by agreement, Tai Shan was supposed to be sent to China for breeding sometime after he turns 2 on July 9 but added that a longer stay in Washington was the "subject of current negotiations between China and the zoo."

For months before that, there had been hope within zoo circles that Tai Shan might linger in Washington because his services as a breeding partner probably would not be needed until he is 5 or 6.

And in December, Berry visited China's famed Wolong Giant Panda Research and Conservation Center, where more than 70 giant pandas live, 18 of them cubs born there in recent months.

"My purpose was to meet with our Chinese partners, discuss future collaborations, and gain a better understanding of the challenges and advances in panda conservation programs," Berry wrote in a zoo newsletter.

On loan from China
Even though Tai Shan was born here, he, like his parents, is on loan to the zoo from China. Tai Shan's parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, are at the zoo under a 10-year, $10 million loan agreement. They arrived in December 2000 and are the focus of a research conservation and breeding program designed to preserve the species.

It was unclear last night whether the zoo has made financial arrangements to keep Tai Shan in Washington.

The zoo's panda reproductive efforts continued this month when scientists and veterinarians twice artificially inseminated Mei Xiang, on April 4 and April 5. Tai Shan was conceived through artificial insemination.

The three pandas are among the biggest attractions in Washington. Tai Shan "is definitely one of the most popular animals here at the National Zoo," Gibbons said.

Tai Shan drew 1.2 million visitors between his public debut Dec. 8, 2005, and his first birthday in July, Gibbons said. His birthday party at the zoo was attended by thousands.

Struggle to produce a healthy cub
Giant pandas, which are endangered, are difficult to breed, and the zoo's three decades of struggling to produce a healthy cub resulted in many disappointments. A previous pair of pandas produced five cubs during the 1980s, but none lived more than a few days.

When Tai Shan was born weighing four ounces, he was initially dubbed "Butterstick," because he was about the size of a stick of butter. He now weighs more than 100 pounds.

His admirers have included first lady Laura Bush and the Queen of Bhutan. He has appeared with his mother on the cover of National Geographic magazine and has generated tens of millions of hits on the zoo's Web site. Thousands of gifts, letters, wedding invitations and e-mails have been sent to the zoo for Tai Shan from around the world, zoo officials have said.

Today, 221 giant pandas live in zoos around the world and about 1,600 in the wild, Berry said in his newsletter.