In black and white, Taiwan interest in pandas fades

Mon Mar 23, 2009 4:12am EDT
 
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TAIPEI (Reuters Life!) - After just two months, Taiwanese are losing interest in a pair of giant pandas donated by political rival China, with the number of visitors to the endangered animals' enclosure dwindling to a few thousand a day.

Zoo official Eric Tsao said Taipei zoo's panda traffic averages 1,000 people on weekdays and 5,000 to 8,000 on weekends, down from daily maximums of 14,400 to 19,200.

Initial predictions had put traffic at 30,000 to 90,000 visitors a day.

"Visitors are used to seeing flagship species from different countries," said Tsao, an associate research fellow at the zoo. "Some people don't even want to see the panda conservation center, which breaks our hearts."

Limited interest, fear of crowds and unfavorable weather, as well as no school holidays, were all keeping visitors away, Tsao and some visitors to the zoo said.

The pandas, Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, whose names said together mean "reunion," went on display on January 26 as part of China's quest to charm the people, who are divided on what kind of relationship democratic Taiwan should pursue with Communist-ruled China.

China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong's Communists won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists fled to the island. Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary.

Ties have improved since China-friendly Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou took office in May, allowing the animals to arrive from a reserve in Sichuan province.

China had offered the pandas to Taiwan as a goodwill gift in 2006. Taiwan's then anti-China president refused to accept them.

Pandas can only be found in the wild in China where they are rebounding from the brink of extinction, but not yet out of the woods, in large part because of difficulties in producing cubs.

(Reporting by Ralph Jennings, editing by Miral Fahmy)

 
<p>Pandas Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, whose names together mean "reunion" in Chinese, walk around inside their enclosure at the Taipei City Zoo, March 23, 2009. REUTERS/Nicky Loh</p>