- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 22, 2000

A pair of playful panda cubs on loan from China will arrive by special jet at Washington Dulles International Airport on Dec. 6, officials from the National Zoo announced yesterday.

The pandas 2 and 1/2-year-old female Mei Xiang and 3 and 1/2-year-old male Tian Tian will lead a caravan of officials and well-wishers to their new home, the renovated Panda House at the zoo, where they will be quarantined for about a month before making any public appearances.

"We know from 28 years of experience with giant pandas at the National Zoo that children and adults just love them," said Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lawrence M. Small. "With our new tenants, the National Zoo will be more popular than ever."

The panda facilities at the Northwest park have been empty since last November, when Hsing-Hsing, one of two pandas donated by China during the Nixon administration, was euthanized. The other, Ling-Ling, died in 1992.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, concluded a year's worth of negotiating yesterday in presenting Mr. Small and Dr. Lucy H. Spelman, the zoo director and chief veterinarian, with the import permit for the new additions.

"Boy, what a fun morning," Ms. Clark said. "Giant pandas are soon returning to the Washington area."

As part of a loan agreement, the National Zoo will contribute $1 million in private funds each year to the China Wildlife Conservation Association for 10 years.

That money will be used to expand and improve the protected panda habitat in China, represented by 26 reserves. It also will support scientific research and professional training in China to promote the long-term conservation of the endangered species.

Fuji Photo Film USA Inc. is donating $7.8 million to bring the animals to the zoo, design a conservation education program and create a research facility and habitat for the pandas.

Friends of the National Zoo, along with several foundations and other donors, also contributed to the effort. No federal funds will be used.

FedEx Express will take the pandas on their 17-hour flight from Wolong in the Sichuan Province aboard a specially marked plane called "FedEx PandaOne."

Cable TV station Animal Planet will document the pandas' stories for four specials and a 13-part series about the zoo.

"The arrival of the pandas here marks the beginning of a new effort on the part of the National Zoo, in collaboration with several other organizations, to help conserve the wild giant panda," Dr. Spelman said.

Scientists estimate that about 1,000 pandas remain in the mountain forests of central China. Facilities in China hold about 120 pandas, and about 20 live elsewhere.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian will join five other pandas in the United States three live at the San Diego Zoo and two at Zoo Atlanta.

Mei Xiang, which means "beautiful fragrance," and Tian Tian, which means "more and more," were born in the China Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong.

It is hard to tell the well-acquainted pair apart, but Mei Xiang has black "stockings" and the black band across her shoulders is wider in the middle. She has a dull black bar across the bridge of her nose.

Tian Tian has black "knee socks" and two black dots across the bridge of his nose.

"I'm sure we'll become very attached" to the new pandas, said zoo keeper Dianne Murname, who took care of Hsing-Hsing for seven years. "My hope is that at the end of the 10 years, we'll just renew the agreement. Maybe by that time we'll have a baby."

While in the District, the cubs will be the focus of a research, conservation and breeding program. Breeding efforts will begin when they reach 5 or 6 years of age, but any offspring will belong to China.

The staff will allow the animals to choose between outdoor foggers and misting machines, and select their own diet from among 50 species of bamboo.

The pandas, accustomed to damp, cold temperatures in the wild, will be provided air-conditioned grottos to attract them outside during the summer.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian will live in three rooms with new murals, rock formations and "snags" or dead trees, said zoo volunteer Pat Purcell. The two yards eventually will be expanded across a concrete path into a now-vacant exhibit area.

Mrs. Purcell's devotion to the creatures is demonstrated in her car, which is decorated with four stuffed pandas.

"I have followed the pandas since 1972," she said, noting that Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling arrived a day before her daughter was born on April 17, 1972.

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