Published: July 2006

Panda

Panda Wave

Panda, Inc.

What's black and white and adored all over—and can cost a zoo more than three million dollars a year?

By Lynne Warren
National Geographic Staff
Photograph by Michael Nichols
National Geographic Staff

He's got chubby cheeks. He naps a lot. He eats with his hands. He lives with his mother. Not exactly the kind of character you'd expect to find at the center of high finance, international diplomacy, fan frenzy, government scrutiny, and scientific fascination. But Tai Shan is a giant panda cub, and that makes him, well, not your average bear.

Born at 3:41 a.m. on Saturday, July 9, 2005, at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., Tai Shan is the first offspring of Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, male and female giant pandas shipped from China to Washington in December 2000. There are only eight other pandas in the United States: two at Zoo Atlanta in Georgia, two at the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee, and four at southern California's San Diego Zoo, where Bai Yun has had three healthy cubs in the past seven years. Together these 11 animals represent an extraordinary investment of scientific resources—and cash.

Hosting giant pandas costs each zoo an average of 2.6 million dollars a year, and that's if no babies arrive. Add a cub, and the budget tops three million dollars. Add two cubs (nearly half of panda pregnancies produce twins), and the tab approaches four million dollars. "Nobody," says David Wildt, head of the National Zoo's reproductive sciences program, "would ever commit this kind of money to any other species."

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