The first baby giant panda ever born in Taiwan — the month-old Yuan Zai (圓仔) — has become a national sensation even before she makes her debut at the Taipei Zoo. Thanks to the media frenzy and the zoo’s daily updates on her, a YouTube video featuring the cub’s reunion with her mother, Yuan Yuan (圓圓), has nearly 1.5 million views since it was posted on Tuesday last week.
As Yuan Zai becomes bigger, it is almost certain that the “pandamania” will only get crazier. The local press is following every little development — from the first black patch she developed, to the weight she gains.
However, in order to provide daily updates on the cub, the zoo is delaying the release of some information. It claimed on Monday last week that it was still considering when to reunite Yuan Yuan with her cub, but when it released the video clip soon afterwards, it confirmed that the reunion had taken place on Aug. 9.
While the zoo has been focussing on the pandas, other animals have been largely ignored. Three cubs have joined the zoo’s koala family this year, with a seven-month old cub popping its head from the pouch of the koala named Empress for the first time on Friday.
In January, the zoo closed its Nocturnal Animal Hall for renovation. During that time, at least 12 animals, including yellow weasels, were found dead. Over the past three years, more than 590 animals have died at the zoo.
The zoo kept these stories from the public, and it has not explained the animals’ deaths. When questioned by Taipei City councilors and animal rights groups, the zoo simply shrugged off criticism about its care for the animals and its failure to be more candid and transparent about exhibition conditions.
With an annual budget of NT$400 million (US$13.4 million), Taipei Zoo has great resources compared with other zoos in the nation. When Yuan Yuan and Tuan Tuan (團團) arrived in 2009, the zoo budgeted NT$39 million for panda maintenance in the first year alone.
Despite its great investment in the giant pandas, the number of visitors to the zoo has been declining steadily in recent years. The pandas attracted 3.6 million visitors in the first year, but that number dropped to 2.8 million last year.
The much-loved panda cub is the zoo’s new hope to boost visitor attendance and it will make sure that she is omnipresent as she grows up. However, the zoo should keep in mind the tragic fate of Knut, the polar bear cub at the Berlin Zoo, as it considers a 24-hour online broadcast of Yuan Zai’s progress. Knut was raised by zookeepers from birth and became an instant sensation on his debut. People from all over the world flocked to the Berlin Zoo to see him and his merchandise generated a fortune for the zoo before he died, drowning in front of his fans when only four years old.
Some have blamed his death on the intense public attention and accused the zoo of making him too dependent on human contact. For Yuan Zai, the good news is that the zoo plans for her to be raised by her mother. The zoo must cater to the needs of the pandas, not put on a circus show for the public.
Preservation and education about other animals, especially endangered species closer to home — the Formosan black bear and the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin — should also be priorities for the zoo. No animals should be neglected and become victims to the panda sensation.