Malaysia Airlines used to operate direct flights to Chengdu. Used to, but not by the time I was ready for my dream-of-a-lifetime panda trip. But it did have direct flights to other Chinese cities that have direct flights, but on a different airline, to Chengdu.
Which city to fly into? The decision was made for me when I found out that Shi Shi was at Guangzhou Zoo. I would fly into Guangzhou via Malaysia Airlines, stay a couple of days, visit him at the zoo and then fly onto Chengdu via Air China.
Shi Shi, whose name means “Rock” , was a wild-born giant panda rescued and taken to the Wolong Giant Panda Research Centre after being critically wounded in a fight with another male panda. Because of his injuries, he could not be returned to the wild, but was instead chosen to go to San Diego Zoo as part of a research loan.
In the history of giant pandas, Shi Shi holds a special place for being the father of Hua Mei, the first giant panda to be born and to survive to adulthood in the United States. Due to a repeated lack of interest in his female partner, he “mated” with Bai Yun through artificial insemination, a technique that was relatively new for giant panda breeding in the late 1990s. As someone said, thanks to the miracle of AI, San Diego Zoo was able to have a giant panda cub, and Shi Shi was able to become a father, something that probably would not have happened in the wild. Hua Mei is his only known offspring; through her, he went on to become a grandfather three times so far – in 2004, 2005 and 2007.
Earlier this year, there were rumours that Shi Shi had died. Then someone posted on the San Diego Zoo pandablog that he was alive and living in Guangzhou Zoo. I had to make a stop in Guangzhou to see him again.
I’d first seen Shi Shi in person in 2001. One of my favourite pictures from that trip, taken by my friend Bob Lum, shows him focused on his food despite the presence of a bird in his space.
I got ready for my trip, and in my luggage was an 8×10 enlargement of this picture which I hoped to present to his keepers at Guangzhou Zoo.
In Guangzhou, I had a bit of problem arranging transport to the zoo until one of the reception staff at the hotel helped me to hire a taxi for the day.
At the zoo, I was a little nervous about finding the giant panda habitat, but I needn’t have. As I strolled towards Shi Shi’s corner of Guangzhou Zoo, I was greeted by one of many bamboo groves surrounding his home.
Further on, a large poster stood at the entrance, with general information about giant pandas and specific information about Shi Shi, in particular his adoption by a Japanese lady who visits him every year.
She is featured in the poster holding paws with him.
As the only giant panda in the zoo, Shi Shi has his own house surrounded on three sides by an outdoor yard. Unfortunately, as I was to confirm with his keeper, he is now totally blind and not allowed to go outdoors in case he can’t find his way back in again. But there is ample space in his indoor enclosure, which he roams with ease and familiarity.
I’d heard about his blindness and how his keepers would bang his metal food dish on the floor so he would know where it is. I’d thought they would do this at a distance for him to walk to his dish. However, as I was to see and hear for myself during my visit with Shi Shi, the keeper went right up beside him to put the dish down with a bang so he would know his food and water has arrived next to him.
Despite his advanced age – he’s now in his 30s – Shi Shi is still a beautiful giant panda, with only a hint of his age when he walks.
I was grateful to have been able to see Shi Shi in person once again, and to take some pictures to share with my panda pals at Pandas Unlimited. I was also able to have a nice chat with one of his two keepers, and to present to her, a picture of a younger Shi Shi during his time at San Diego Zoo.