Hua Mei Returns to China
It was going to be hard for the Zoo, San Diego, and panda fans to say farewell to Hua Mei as she moved on to the next phase of her life. After all, she was the Zoo’s first panda cub, and she grew up on Panda Cam with millions of people around the world watching her and cheering on her every move.
However, the pandas were on loan to the San Diego Zoo, and the agreement was that any cubs born would return to China when they were about three years old and independent from their mother. Hua Mei was already four years old at the beginning of 2004—because of the outbreak of the SARS virus, travel and shipping restrictions, and timing to avoid potential bad weather, her trip to China had been postponed more than once. But in February 2004, all was in place for Hua Mei to go to her new home at the Wolong Giant Panda Conservation Center.
In an interview before Hua Mei left, Dr. Don Lindburg, head of the Zoo’s Giant Panda Team, said that San Diego’s loss would be the Wolong breeding center’s gain. “She’s not been sick a single day in her life, and she’s very active and easy to care for. She understands human commands—although she might have to learn a little Chinese. I think they’ll be most pleased to get her.” Don told reporters that he and others who worked with Hua Mei had formed strong attachments, but they would have to “put aside our emotions for the good of the species. She’ll leave a big hole, though.”
San Diego keepers accompanied Hua Mei on the 10-hour flight, and she took it all in stride, munching on bamboo and panda biscuits. She then had a month of observation, during which she was slowly introduced to “Chinese bamboo, Chinese-made biscuits, and Chinese fruits.” She adjusted well to her new home in Wolong’s White Dragon Valley, a mountainous area 60 miles from Chengdu, the provincial capital.
When she became accustomed to her new environment, she was given her choice of three possible mates, and she mated with a male named Ling Ling. Researchers hadn’t thought she was quite ready to reproduce yet—but in fact, she was found to be pregnant on May 2, 2004, and she gave birth to her first healthy cub on September 1.
In subsequent years, Hua Mei has followed in Bai Yun’s footsteps as a productive and wonderful mother. To date, she has given birth to 11 cubs—which includes 3 sets of twins! All have been healthy and grown up to contribute to the giant panda conservation program in their own right.