MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:
You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
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SOFIA: Maddie Sofia here with SHORT WAVE reporter Emily Kwong.
EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: Hey, Maddie.
SOFIA: Hey, you. So I saw you sneakle-snackling (ph) out of the office last week, saying you were going to the zoo.
KWONG: I was going to the zoo, to the Smithsonian's National Zoo here in Washington, D.C., because what's unfolding there is an international conservation story in the form of a furry, four-legged bamboo-lover, a giant panda named Bei Bei.
SOFIA: Ayy (ph), Bei Bei.
SOFIA: OK, I'm so sorry.
KWONG: That's genuinely the panda's name, Maddie.
SOFIA: I'm so sorry. OK, Bei Bei the panda.
KWONG: Yes, spelled B-E-I B-E-I - meaning precious treasure in Mandarin Chinese. He was born on August 22, 2015 - pink, hairless and blind.
SOFIA: As we all come into the world.
KWONG: Pretty helpless. As a newborn, he's about the size of a stick of butter.
KWONG: (Laughter) And his mother, Mei Xiang, picked Bei Bei up and nestled him in her panda arms. And I know this because there's video footage of it from one of the many panda cams at the zoo.
SOFIA: Many? Like, multiple cams?
KWONG: Oh, yeah. Maddy, this is pandas we're talking about. No species has been the focus of a more expensive, globally reaching conservation effort than these black-and-white bears. Pandas were on the endangered species list for decades when we were kids, right? But because of this effort, pandas were delisted in 2016 and are now considered a vulnerable species.
SOFIA: And these pandas are, like, celebrities, right?
KWONG: Absolutely. This is Bei Bei's life and the life of a lot of zoo pandas - public adoration, endless amounts of bamboo. And if you're listening to this episode on November 18, when we publish, you still have a chance to watch this panda poop and play on the zoo cameras. But on November 19, Bei Bei is taking a one-way trip to China.
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SOFIA: Today on the show, why the National Zoo is saying bye-bye to Bei Bei.
KWONG: And raising a panda in a zoo is one thing, but what would it take to actually ensure their survival in the wild?
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SOFIA: OK, Kwong - so Bei Bei the panda, born at the Smithsonian's National Zoo, is leaving for China this week. Where in China?
KWONG: OK. So he's going to the Bifengxia Panda Base to one day make babies and boost China's panda population.
SOFIA: Got you. Why is he going now?
KWONG: Because Bei Bei this year hit his 4th birthday.
KWONG: This is a video of him eating his birthday cake.
SOFIA: (Laughter) So many videos, Kwong.
KWONG: How many videos do you have from your childhood?
SOFIA: None. My - I was a second child. My parents were very tired. Go on.
KWONG: OK, I'm not going to get into that right now. But I will tell you that for all the love zoos in the United States show their pandas, they're still the property of the Chinese government. They're here on temporary loan.
SOFIA: Ooh, I didn't know that.
KWONG: And the National Zoo in D.C. has bred and raised these panda cubs in captivity in cooperation with China's conservation efforts with the understanding they'll one day be sent to China.
SOFIA: And I guess Bei Bei was one of those cubs.
KWONG: Exactly. After four years here, the plan was always to send Bei Bei to China to make more Bei Beis.
KWONG: Had to do it.
SOFIA: So I imagine for the zookeepers, that's got to be, you know, like, a little tough.
KWONG: Definitely. When I snuck out of the office to visit the zoo last week, bye-bye Bei Bei celebrations were in full swing.
SOFIA: Like, with balloons? Or what are we talking about?
KWONG: With treats.
KWONG: Pumpkin spice, applesauce - the pandas were basically getting spoiled. And visitors were penning goodbye postcards, like 6-year-old Reuben Goldberg (ph).
REUBEN GOLDBERG: I really miss you.
KWONG: Yeah? What is your favorite part of Bei Bei's life?
GOLDBERG: When he's eating.
KWONG: The panda's diet is almost exclusively bamboo.
Oh, oh. Oh, my gosh.
I had never seen a panda in real life until this moment.
Holy - whoa, they're huge. Oh, I - Oh, sorry. I was not expecting this. I didn't realize how big they were.
DEVIN MURPHY: Yeah.
SOFIA: Kwong, you sound so happy.
KWONG: I'm definitely impressed after seeing Bei Bei's parents, who were going to town on some bamboo. Their bite strength is close to that of a lion's.
KWONG: But the panda of the hour, Bei Bei, he was actually fast asleep in his hammock.
Bei Bei is passed out with stocks of bamboo draped around him, almost like someone who's fallen asleep with an open box of pizza on their lap.
MURPHY: That's probably a pretty solid analogy, so.
KWONG: That's Devin Murphy, a spokeswoman at the zoo.
SOFIA: Honestly, that's the most I've ever related to a panda.
KWONG: (Laughter) Falling asleep with food just draped all over you?
SOFIA: Yeah, yeah.
KWONG: Fair. Bei Bei's life of eating and sleeping and being admired by the public in this way is about to change. And one of the zookeepers that will join him in this flight to enter China and their captive breeding program is Laurie Thompson.
LAURIE THOMPSON: My name is Laurie Thompson, and I am the assistant curator of giant pandas.
KWONG: Laurie was there when Bei Bei was born, trained him and describes him as independent, laid back and intelligent. Looking at the pandas myself, it's so easy to anthropomorphize them.
SOFIA: Like, give them human characteristics.
KWONG: Yeah. But Laurie, as a zookeeper, wants to make it really clear the panda is truly a bear.
THOMPSON: I respect who they are as their species and their individual traits, but I don't look at them as, like, family or - you know, they're just - they are who they are, and I spend a lot of time with them (laughter).
KWONG: And protecting pandas has meant learning the particulars of how to care for their species. Those who monitor the panda cams log the behavior of all three of the zoo's pandas every four minutes.
SOFIA: I mean, this is a lot of money and, like, a lot of effort for one species.
KWONG: Yeah. I would say there's a few reasons pandas get a lot of attention. They've been used as a diplomatic tool of the Chinese government over the decades. They've been given and loaned. Pandas are the poster children of conservation. But Melissa Songer, a conservation biologist with the Smithsonian, had a scientific explanation that really taught me something. She pointed out that when you save the panda and, more importantly, the panda's natural habitat, you're actually saving other species that live there.
MELISSA SONGER: The panda is what we call an umbrella species. And so, for example, in the '80s, there were 12 protected areas for the giant panda; now there are 67. There are an estimated 4,000 known species that are also sharing that habitat...
SOFIA: Whoa, 4,000's a lot.
SONGER: ...Species that are not inspiring people the way giant pandas do. And so when we're protecting these areas for giant pandas, we're protecting all these species as well.
SOFIA: OK, OK. I'm getting on board.
KWONG: Yeah, an umbrella species. There's also this idea that pandas are bad at sex.
SOFIA: Yes, I've heard this, that they're, like - they won't have sex in a zoo, no matter what you do.
KWONG: It is true that pandas have struggled to reproduce in captivity. And in fact, Bei Bei and all of his siblings, they've all been created through artificial insemination.
KWONG: His parents actually struggled to get the positioning right for sex.
SOFIA: Wow. OK.
KWONG: But there is research showing that pandas can reproduce successfully in the wild so long as their habitat is kept pristine. So it's fair to say, when left to their own devices, they're not bad at sex.
SOFIA: Panda sex myth busted - thank you, Kwong.
KWONG: We do a public service here on SHORT WAVE.
KWONG: For pandas to be successfully reintroduced into the wild, though, to survive and reproduce, they have to be able to find each other, and that's tough. They're kind of solitary. And while overall panda habitat has grown in China, a 2017 study in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution said the forest is still being broken up by development, a process known as fragmentation. So these wild pandas are isolated from each other, which is a big problem for an animal that only reproduces two to three days out of a given year.
SOFIA: Is that because the females can only get pregnant once a year?
KWONG: That's it, exactly. There's just a small window of time. So while humans have certainly helped save the panda, their activity has also put them in danger in the first place. And then, Melissa points out, there's the unknowns of climate change.
SONGER: We don't know how the changes in climate in terms of increasing temperatures and changes and precipitation - how is that going to impact the bamboo that they're dependent on? And so that's another area of focus that we're working on in terms of trying to understand, using climate change models, how do we expect the forest to shift when - in 50 years and 80 years and so forth.
SOFIA: So you got me all worked up that we've saved the panda, and now you're telling me that they're still in trouble.
KWONG: Their habitat may be.
KWONG: And I will say, there are a number of scientists working on the habitat part of the equation, restoring bamboo forests, creating these habitat corridors for the pandas to, you know, liaise.
SOFIA: Meet up.
KWONG: Meet up. And while Bei Bei will never be introduced into the wild, his offspring might one day. First order of business, though - he has to get on this plane to China. And when Laurie and the zoo's chief veterinarian Don Neiffer arrive, they'll get Bei Bei situated in his new home at Bifengxia.
What are you going to say to Bei Bei when it's time to - what are you going to do or what are you going to say to Bei Bei when it's time to say real goodbye in China?
THOMPSON: Oh, goodness. That's going to be hard. I think - I'll probably just tell him, be a good boy.
THOMPSON: And you're going to make me cry, thinking about it.
THOMPSON: I don't want to think about it (laughter). I get a little bit longer, though, than the keepers here, so they'll all be, you know, upset the day we leave, and I get a little bit more time, a couple more days.
KWONG: And the zoo will continue to care for Bei Bei's adult parents, Tien Tien and Mei Xiang. Their contract is up in 2020. It is up to the zoo to request an extension and up to the Chinese government to grant it. That's how panda conservation works.
SOFIA: One contract at a time.
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KWONG: This is SHORT WAVE from NPR. I'm Emily Kwong.
SOFIA: And I'm Maddie Sofia. This episode was produced by tiny human panda Rebecca Ramirez and edited by regular human Viet Le. We'll see you tomorrow.
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