Pandas may soon be Taiwan bound

Zoos competing to secure animals brush off political concerns and say facilities are nearly ready

Two giant pandas - a gift from Beijing rejected by Taipei nearly a year ago - could be in Taiwan as early as six months from now, it was revealed yesterday.

Wayne Wu, sales and marketing director of the Leofoo Safari Park in Hsinchu county, said his zoo would apply again to the Council of Agriculture to bring the pandas to the island. 'We are planning to apply as early as next month when our panda house is finished,' said Mr Wu, adding that nearly NT$100 million (HK$23.6 million) had been spent on the panda project.

'We have also sent workers to Sichuan's Wolong Panda Reserve to learn about panda breeding and medical care skills.'

In March last year, Taiwan's Council of Agriculture said applications by Leofoo and the Taipei Municipal Zoo to bring the pandas to the island were turned down because the organisations had not completed breeding facilities or trained workers to care for the mammals.

But critics say the main reason was that the animals had been named Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan by Beijing, after the Chinese word tuanyuan, which means reunion. The names were criticised by independence-leaning politicians.

As a private-owned zoo, Mr Wu said Leofoo's application was not a political burden, compared with that of the a municipal zoo.

'Indeed, we heard that the Taiwan authorities will soon allow mainland tourists from Beijing and Shanghai to visit in April,' Mr Wu said. 'If everything goes smoothly, I am hopeful the pandas will also be here around autumn or winter.'

Leofoo's rival, Taipei Municipal Zoo, also stressed that it had not given up applying to bring the pandas to Taiwan.

'In order to reach the standards for panda breeding, we are also building a panda house, and the project will be finished in the coming autumn too,' said Chin Shih-chien, a research officer at the zoo.

Mr Chin said they had also sent experts to the US, Thailand and the mainland to study panda breeding and proliferation skills over the past decade.

'We have seriously prepared the project for many years. We have even mastered the techniques for breeding pandas in tropical areas like Taiwan,' Mr Chin said, adding it would give them a bigger advantage in bidding for the pandas.

Mr Chin and Mr Wu said the political factor was not a concern.

'We aren't too concerned as to whether the pandas that will land in Taiwan are Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan or others,' said Mr Wu. 'But I am confident of getting the pandas because as a privately owned zoo, everything we have done is much more efficient than the government-run zoo.'

According to China News Service, the mainland's Wolong reserve centre said Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan were ready to cross the strait to Taiwan.