While people born in the upcoming Chinese New Year of the snake will soon be taking the spotlight, another animal has been in the spotlight and revered for years in China. It's the country's national treasure and my favorite animal, the giant panda.
I have a weakness for pandas. So, when I received an invitation to learn more about them at Ocean Park in Hong Kong, I jumped at the chance!
"We have 4 pandas at Ocean Park and actually this animal we are responsible for taking care of them they were a gift from the central government to the people of Hong Kong," said Timothy Ng of the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation.
An An and Jia Jia were both rescued from the wild and nursed back to health. At age 35, Jia Jia is the oldest giant panda under human care. The other 2 pandas are Ying Ying and Le Le.
"Le Le is the mature one so he is more not as curious. He is more of how to say hard working. He is very stable in training and he is very smart," said Ocean Park Panda Specialist Cissy Kou.
Le Le needs plenty of food to fill his hefty appetite. Compared to our 3 meals a day, Le Le eats up to 10 a day. He weighs more than 275 pounds.
"They can eat up to 15 or 20 kilograms a day. That's pretty much a full time job," said Ng.
Le Le is 7 years old and at this age he's just about ready to become a parent. Officials have their fingers crossed he and Ying Ying will be able to produce a cub some day.
"We're working on that. Ying Ying and Le Le this year, they will get sexually mature and early this year they will start their breeding season," said Ng.
Fingers are crossed, but the odds are stacked against them. Female pandas only ovulate once a year!
Artificial insemination is used but success rates are low. Difficulty re-producing and habitat destruction are some of the reasons why this beloved animal is bordering on extinction.
"The panda is only found in China and according to the last survey, there were only about 1,600 in the wild so they are critically endangered," said Ng.
"We are destroying their habitat their living area and we should have a balance between us and the animals in the wild," said Kou.
This is where all the "pandamonium" comes in. Unbeknownst to die hard fans, they are doing their part in helping out their favorite animal. With every purchase, a portion of the proceeds goes to conservation efforts. Last year, the park raised 1-million dollars.
Over the years, it's raised enough money to help rebuild the bamboo forest in Sichuan destroyed by the powerful 8.0 earthquake in 2008, build a new veterinarian hospital at the Woolong nature preserve and support countless other conservation projects.
It's an ongoing effort to make sure these wonderful animals are around for future generations to enjoy. It's not just Ocean Park in Hong Kong, other zoos that care for pandas in China and on the mainland also contribute to the panda conservation foundation.