Final Entry in the Global Atlanta China Blog

<p>A baby panda in an incubator at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding's Sunshine nursery.&nbsp;</p>

A baby panda in an incubator at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding's Sunshine nursery. 

<p>Is one of these Mei Lan? We couldn't tell, but keepers and researchers at the base insist that each panda has a unique appearance and personality.&nbsp;</p>

Thinking about the fact that there are only about 1,600 giant pandas left in the wild, getting two in one sounds pretty amazing. 

Rebecca Snyder, curator of mammals at Zoo Atlanta, said twins are not all that uncommon among captive breeding populations, but that didn't stop the world from fixating on Atlanta's Lun Lun when she birthed that surprise second cub in July.  

Zoo Atlanta posted videos of the live birth on its website to complement its online panda cams. Coincidentally, two weeks later, China's Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding announced that it would officially launch 24-hour webcams it had installed a month before. 

If not in Atlanta, where Lun Lun is on loan from the Chengdu base, the twins would've likely been born in the southwest China city, where thousands of visitors from school groups to scientists flock every year to try and glimpse black and white creatures through the stalks of bamboo. 

By all accounts they hate noise and are nearly impossible to see through the brush, but they do come out to eat, and that's when their character really shows. They loaf, lean and seem to almost laugh as they chow down on a bamboo buffet. Sometimes they run or climb, showing that their seeming laziness belies their many physical capabilities. 

The pandas have been a huge hit in Atlanta, but viewing them in Chengdu is a completely different experience. For one, the center has 80 pandas. It also seems (based on my sore feet) just as big as the entire Atlanta zoo, though only dedicated to two species (red pandas also). 

Chengdu also has two nursing centers where visitors can watch through glass as keepers care for new babies inches away. At least three of the wriggling babies were on display at the Sunshine Nursing House during a Global Atlanta visit to the center. 

While they can melt your heart, the point of captive breeding is about more than fun and photo ops. They're loaned out for a more sober purpose: to help people understand the plight of their species. Giant pandas are not only a symbol of China, but they also emphasize just how close we are to losing such captivating creatures if we don't care for the world. They're endangered not from poaching or predators, but thanks to habitat loss due to human activity. 

Through their ongoing exchange, Atlanta professionals have played a key role in fostering that understanding at the Chengdu base and helping its officials educate both the public and other zoo leaders from around China. 

Xu Ping, director of the Chengdu base's education department, said its key tool is "empathy." The theory: If everyone understands that each panda has its own personality, just like them, they'll think twice about harming the environment. 

Atlantans were quick to take to the personality of Mei Lan, the first cub born to Lun Lun and father Yang Yang six years ago in Atlanta. 

First deemed a female and named "beautiful Atlanta", he was later found out to be male, since panda testes don't descend until they're more than three years old. The name, however, has stuck. Now, he entertains and educates guests in the No. 2 Giant Panda Enclosure, a cute, cuddly reminder of the beauty of collaboration between the Atlanta zoo and the Chengdu base. 

More on how Zoo Atlanta has aided the base's educational programs in a later story...

The China blog is made possible by Windham Brannon, an Atlanta-based CPA firm providing audit, tax and advisory services for businesses and high net-worth individuals. Mr. Williams spent the last week of August reporting from China.

Corrections: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said a male panda's testes descend at three months after birth. It's actually three years. Also, the date of the launch of the Chengdu base's panda cams has been revised. 

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