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TVL Bear market for U.S. zoos as pandas' popularity grows

Zoos in the United States continue to pander to the pandas as their most popular attraction, assuming the zoos are lucky enough to have the rare animals at all.

Giant pandas -- one of the most lovable animals in the world and national treasures in China -- are clinging to survival, with a worldwide effort under way to keep them from becoming extinct. And four zoos in the U.S., where they are among the most coveted attractions, are playing their part with conservation, education and research efforts.

Native only to China, the pandas face habitat fragmentation and poaching as their greatest threats. Additionally, they have a low reproductive rate. It's estimated that only 1,600 pandas survive in the mountainous wilds of China, and researchers and conservation organizations are working to ensure that the remaining animals have space to live without human interference.

So-called captive propagation programs to help ensure the future survival of the panda population are high on the priority list among the zoos in the U.S. which now house several of them.

The famed San Diego Zoo is in the midst of a 12-year panda conservation study that began in 1996, with the arrival from China of giant pandas Bai Yun and Shi Shi. In August 1999, Bai Yun gave birth to a cub, Hua Mei, the first giant panda born in North America to survive past four days in the last decade.

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In January 2003, Shi Shi returned to China and another wild-born male, Gao Gao, arrived, and in August 2003, Mei Sheng was born. He is Gao Gao's first known offspring.

The black-and-white animals, called "large bear-cats" in China, have long been revered by the Chinese and according to researchers can be found in Chinese art dating back thousands of years.

People outside of China have been fascinated by giant pandas since they were first described by French missionary Pere Armand David in 1869. But now the animals are on the endangered species list, even though the latest population estimate of their number is positive -- the total of 1,600 is 40 percent higher than the last census in the 1980s, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Attempts began in China 50 years ago to breed pandas in captivity, and the first ever captive-bred giant panda was born at the Beijing Zoo in 1963. Since then the Chinese government has set up special research centers to improve the captive breeding, including the one near Chengdu, a 600-acre facility that is by far the largest in the world and visited recently by Sue and Jim Naessens of Rochester. Their Travel Page article appears on Page1E.

Pandas first came to the U.S. in 1972 when the Chinese government gave two giant pandas -- a male and a female -- to then-President Richard Nixon as a gesture that helped open U.S. relations with China. The pandas were placed in the National Zoological Park, part of the Smithsonian Institutions in Washington, D.C.

Now there are pandas at three other U.S. facilities, the San Diego Zoo, the Atlanta zoo and more recently at the Memphis Zoo. All of these zoos -- and there are others in the world with pandas loaned from China -- have extensive research projects under way to learn more about the animals and help save them from extinction.

Americans' fondness for these animals is evident, and the panda exhibits are easily the zoos' No. 1 attraction, drawing millions of visitors.

Most enjoyable viewing that we found during several visits to the San Diego Zoo was watching giant pandas eat. A panda usually eats while sitting upright, in a pose that resembles how humans sit on the floor. This posture leaves the front paws free to grasp bamboo stems -- their favorite food -- with the help of a "pseudo thumb," formed by an elongated and enlarged wrist bone covered with a fleshy pad of skin. The panda also uses its powerful jaws and strong teeth to crush the tough, fibrous bamboo into bits.

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In addition to visiting a zoo, you can watch pandas at home. Most of the zoos have "panda cams" on their Web sites which allow viewers from around the world to watch the panda grow up, notes Amusement Business, a trade magazine.

Here and there

Officials at the Kansas Underground Salt Museum in Hutchinson, scheduled to open in the fall of 2005, say it will be among the top 20 tourist attractions in Kansas. The $7.8 million museum expects to attract at least 150,000 visitors in its first year of operation. The museum will have more than 100,000 square feet of exhibit and program space in a working underground salt mine.

The Wounded Knee Museum at Wall, S.D., is in the midst of its second season. New exhibits expand on the story of a small band of Lakota families who became the focus of the last major military operation in the U.S. Army to subdue Native American tribes.

Bob Retzlaff is travel editor of the Post-Bulletin. He can be reached by phone at (507) 285-7704 or by e-mail at retz@postbulletin.com.

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