Last month, a plane took off from Atlanta, Georgia, carrying two unusual passengers: twin giant panda cubs. The pandas, Mei Lun and Mei Huan (MAY loon and MAY hwaan), were being sent to their new home in China. The 3-year-old sisters were born at Zoo Atlanta, but like all pandas, they actually belong to China.
In the wild, giant pandas live only in the bamboo forests of China. The Chinese government loans pandas to zoos around the world, including four zoos in the U.S. The zoos pay about $500,000 each year to borrow each panda. As part of the deal, all pandas born in another country are sent to China by the time they turn 4 years old. The Chinese government says it uses the money it gets from loaning out the bears for research and protection of panda habitat, or an animal’s natural home.
POWER TO THE PANDAS
Giant pandas have long been considered one of the most threatened species on Earth. Years of logging and clearing forests to build farms and roads wiped out much of the supply of bamboo—the pandas' favorite food.
But conservation (protection) efforts in China have helped the panda population recover. Today, China has 67 panda reserves, which protect about two-thirds of all pandas in the wild. In September, the white-and-black bears were taken off the endangered species list—a list of animals at serious risk of going extinct. Still, only about 2,000 giant pandas remain in the wild.
Mei Lun and Mei Huan are the first twin pandas ever sent from the U.S. to China. The pandas’ “luggage” for their long flight included 170 kilograms (375 pounds) of bamboo and 30 liters (8 gallons) of water.
Their new home is the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in central China. There, they will be part of a breeding program to help increase the panda population. “We’re very proud to see two more Atlanta-born giant pandas go to join such an important program,” the president of Zoo Atlanta, Raymond B. King, recently said in a statement.
The twins will be joined by another American-born panda, Bao Bao (bow bow), within the next few months. The 3-year-old female cub currently lives at the National Zoo, in Washington, D.C. Read more about Bao Bao’s journey to China in the March 6, 2017, issue of Science World.