Panda lovers in US put to the test as 59,000 becomes 24

Updated: 2012-10-17 10:28

By Wang Bowen in Washington (China Daily)

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Panda lovers in US put to the test as 59,000 becomes 24

Semi-finalists from across North America pose in Washington prior to a competition to become a panda ambassador. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, in partnership with WildAid and the Yao Ming Foundation, is hosting the event to increase awareness worldwide of panda and wildlife conservation. [PHOTO BY SUN CHENBEI / CHINA DAILY]

Two dozen wildlife enthusiasts from North America gathered in Washington on Tuesday to compete to become "Pambassadors" for panda conservation.

After two days in which they will participate in a series of challenges to test their knowledge, physical strength, communication skills and team working abilities, three ambassadors will be chosen to tour the world on behalf of pandas.

The 2012 Global Pambassador program, a three-month competition organized by the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in partnership with WildAid, an organization combating illegal wildlife trade, and the Yao Ming Foundation, aims to develop global knowledge and awareness of giant panda conservation.

On Facebook, 255,412 overseas contestants registered for the contest, of which 59,174 were from the United States. After the online PandaQuest competition, 24 regional winners are chosen in each region, including Europe, North America, Asia-Pacific and Chinese mainland. Four from each region will travel to the final in Chengdu, capital city of Sichuan province and home to pandas.

Three winners will serve as a Pambassadors for one year and have the opportunity to participate in a global panda conservation tour in 2013. They will also journey into the natural habitat of wild pandas and help with panda release programs, designed to re-introduce captive bears to the wild.

"Pandas are amazing, unique and beautiful creatures. They should be around forever," said Diane Cranford, a pharmacist from Los Angeles, and one of the 24 North American contestants dressed in panda costumes for a media launch on Tuesday.

The oldest contestant, Lisa Fredsti, 53, a novelist, has paid frequent visits to China since 1978 and feels an urgent need to protect them.

"I support panda conservation because I don't want to be the last of our kind," she said.

Peter Knights, founder of WildAid, said the panda, being an animal people can easily empathize with, provided a channel for people to understand the plight of endangered species.

"People just adore them," he said. "It has big eyes - in fact, many species have big eyes, but it has big patches that make its eyes look bigger. It is cuddly, soft, cute, and essentially harmless."

By joining hands with the Chengdu Panda Base, Knights said, they also want to celebrate the success of panda conservation in China. The population of the giant pandas in the wild is estimated to be around 1,600, compared with 1,000 in the 1970s.

Chengdu Panda Base, founded in 1987, started with six giant pandas rescued from the wild and had 124 panda births by 2008, among which the captive panda population has grown to 83.

"The number allows us to start to try to reintroduce the pandas to the wild. That is a success story to me," said Knights.

Mary Kate Flannery, a university student from San Diego, has been extending her studies since entering the competition. She learned the daily life of pandas by watching the San Diego Zoo's panda cam live on her computer. Now her whole family is following the panda cam.

"Every day my family will ask me about this," Flannery said.

Kevin O'Brien from New York added: "It is an amazing opportunity, something once in a lifetime that we can't get anywhere else."

This year's Chengdu Pambassador program builds on the success of the 2010 program, in which six finalists were chosen from more than 60,000 who applied to become a panda caretaker at Chengdu for one month.

For China Daily

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