Taiwan panda unveiled to public

Last updated 10:43 07/01/2014

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A 6-month-old giant panda was unveiled to her adoring public in Taiwan on Monday (Tuesday NZT), with long lines of children of all ages queuing up at the Taipei zoo to see the cub cavorting around her cage with an understandably protective mother.

Yuan Zai's debut had long been anticipated on this island of 23 million people.

With delighted visitors passing in front of her cage at the rate of 40 per minute, Yuan Zai showed off her climbing skills before retreating to mother Yuan Yuan's embrace, and then heading off for a nap. She currently sleeps 20 hours a day.

Zoo officials say they will be able to accommodate 19,000 visitors a day to see Yuan Zai, whose mother and father came to Taiwan from China in late 2008. Their arrival was seen at the time as a high water mark in Beijing's use of "soft power" in Taiwan, which split from the mainland amid civil war in 1949, and remains the object of unwavering Chinese attempts to bring it back into the fold - by persuasion if possible, by force if necessary.

But politics seemed to be about the last thing on the minds of Yuan Zai's fan base Monday as again and again visitors' faces lit up with broad smiles amid giggles of glee and repeated cries of "how cute" or "how beautiful."

Chinese giant pandas have been a hit all around the world, but they seem to have a special cachet in Taiwan, where animal figures are so much in vogue that Taiwanese airline company Eva Airways has found that festooning its aircraft in the livery of fictional Japanese figure Hello Kitty provides a powerful boost to sales.

In other panda news Bao Bao, the giant panda cub at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, is getting used to seeing fans outside her enclosure as she prepares for her public debut this month.

Bao Bao, who belongs to China and eventually will return there, had a tryout Monday (Tuesday NZT) in front of the media. She spent the morning crawling, climbing and following mother Mei Xiang to a chorus of camera clicks.

For the most part, Bao Bao is oblivious to all the commotion, panda curator Brandie Smith said.

"She doesn't even seem to notice the folks who are watching her, her adoring public," Smith said. "Her focus is mostly on Mom right now."

Bao Bao will make her public debut January 18.

By then, Bao Bao will be nearly 5 months old. She is still a baby, zookeepers said. She sleeps about half the day and plays while awake, rolling and tumbling on her head, gnawing on bamboo and poking at her mother.

Smith said they won't make Bao Bao or her mother do anything they don't want to do. They will bring her out into the enclosure for viewing, conduct some training sessions with her and sometimes weigh her in public view.

"But if the cub chooses to go back into the den, or if mom chooses to take her back into the den, we won't force her to be out on display," Smith said.

In recent months, Bao Bao has become more active, moving around on her own and exploring the environment. Now she's working on climbing, but some rocks are still too big.

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During a tour of the zoo in December, actor Hugh Jackman was allowed to peek inside the panda house and found Bao Bao in full view. He posted a picture on Instagram.

Bao Bao has turned out to be calm and relaxed, more subdued than older brother Tai Shan, said biologist Laurie Thompson, who has worked with the pandas for years.

"Tai Shan was a little more vocal when we did things like weigh him, where she seems kind of relaxed about it," she said. "She's like her dad. Tian Tian is very relaxed and kind of goes with the flow. So I'm thinking she got that from him."

- AP

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