WASHINGTON – Even when he sleeps away the day,his chubby body wedged between tree branches high above the bamboo-littered exhibit,baby panda Tai Shan draws a stadium-sized crowd.
On Wednesday,9-month-old Tai Shan (pronounced tie-SHON) was in a bamboo-and-milk-induced sleep,oblivious to the crush of spectators elbowing their way to the fence to catch even the tiniest glimpse of the giant panda at the Smithsonian National Zoo.
The response to the baby panda has been overwhelming,said John Gibbons,zoo spokesman. The zoo has sold $850,000 worth of merchandise in its shops,double the previous year,since Tai Shan was born July 9.
The fuss over the panda is understandable,Gibbons said,considering there are only 188 pandas in captivity worldwide. The San Diego Zoo is the only other zoo in the United States that has raised panda cubs.
With every shift of his paws and every scratch of his head,the crowd held its collective breath,waiting until he resettled his 45-pound girth into a precarious perch before they exclaimed over his preciousness.
But it's obvious stardom hasn't gone to the cub's head,even with celebrity visitors like Nicole Kidman,first lady Laura Bush and the Chinese ambassador. There is no diamond-encrusted collar or bamboo served on a gold plate for this panda,who by his superstardom has reawakened a global conservation effort.
Instead,he spends his days exploring the 17,500-square foot,baby-proofed exhibit,tackling and tugging on mom,Mei Xiang,snacking on bamboo and mom's milk and napping in some of his favorite spots. Much like he would in the wild.
His fan base extends far beyond the District,drawing spectators from as far away as Australia,Poland and Israel. About 500,000 to 600,000 visitors have come to see Tai Shan,his mom and dad,Tian Tian.
But far more panda fans visit the zoo's Web site,which has had more than 7 million hits since the cub's birth. It features a live PandaCam and an updated diary of Tai Shan's growth.
Wednesday's update mentions some of Tai Shan's peculiar behavior: a tendency to back into mom,people and new toys,such as a tub of water he was recently given for the first time.
The diary explains that it could be a form of submissiveness or a ploy to initiate playtime with mom.
“Perhaps he is also just being cautious and presenting his very padded end first,on those rare occasions when he is not quite so sure of himself,” it reads. “In the case of the tub,he backed up slowly,only to dip one hind foot lightly to break the surface of the water before turning his attention to more ordinary pursuits.”
Gibbons said small bits of information like this mean a lot to the giant panda conservation effort.
Since Tai Shan was born,the zoo has seen an increase in private and corporate donations and grants. More than $400,000 has been sent to China to help with breeding and habitat programs,which are in the baby panda's future.
After his second birthday,Tai Shan will return to China,where he'll enter the breeding program,according to the current loan agreement. That means the public has about a year and three months to coo over him before he returns to his natural habitat.
It's actually a great opportunity for the giant panda species because it will bring genetic diversity to a population that is dwindling every day,Gibbons said.
“As sad as it might be for the humans at the zoo,it won't be a sad day for him or his mother,” he said. “It's going to be a natural time for her and us to let him go.”
To see the PandaCam,visit http://nationalzoo.si.edu and click on the panda icon.