Xin Xing, giant panda with progeny around the globe, dies at 38

For a giant panda described by her longtime caretaker as bad-tempered and aggressive, Xin Xing achieved several feats in life. (photo courtesy/ CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK)

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) – Xin Xing, a giant panda who grew to an age that shattered records, lived a life of great appetites.

Born in the wild in a sprawling panda sanctuary in China’s Sichuan Province, she was transferred to the Chongqing Zoo in south-western China when she was just a year old.

There, she became known for outpacing other pandas with her seemingly bottomless stomach – putting away 70 pounds (31.75kg) of bamboo shoots, leaves and fruit daily.

She gained the distinction of becoming the world’s oldest panda in captivity. And as the matriarch of 153 descendants who have lived around the globe, she was a potent symbol of China’s panda diplomacy.

On Dec 8, Xin Xing, whose name means “new star” in Mandarin, died at 38 (the equivalent of at least 110 in human years). The cause was multiple organ failures and other ailments that led to fatal infections in her respiratory and digestive tracts, the Chongqing Zoo said in a statement Monday (Dec 21).

For a giant panda described by her longtime caretaker as bad-tempered and aggressive, Xin Xing achieved several feats in life.

Fewer than 30 pandas in captivity have lived beyond the age of 30. (Wild pandas have even shorter life spans – 14 to 20 years.) Xin Xing broke that barrier.

Giant pandas also have a low success rate with breeding in captivity. Females ovulate only once a year, in the spring and can conceive for only around one to three days during this time. The window is small. Success is not certain.

But Xin Xing gave birth to at least 10 cubs, according to the Chinese news media, helping to spawn progeny that have lived in Canada, Taiwan and the United States.

There are 1,900 giant pandas in the wild, and 600 others are in zoos and breeding centres that seek to increase the population of the vulnerable species. China owns almost all the animals, including those born abroad to parents lent for a fee to foreign zoos.

At the Chongqing Zoo, Xin Xing lived a seemingly untroubled life, lounging in a bear-size pool in the summer and eating seven meals a day.

Her caretaker of 28 years, Mr Zhang Naicheng, told China Daily in August, “When she was younger, she ate faster and much more than other pandas.”

The panda was also prone to temper tantrums when she was young, he told the China News Service in 2018. “Xin Xing was pretty hotheaded back then,” he said. “Among the pandas, she was a pretty fierce one. Now that she’s old, she’s become more docile and less easily provoked.”

For her 38th birthday, in August, zoo keepers presented her with a large ice cube piled high with watermelon slices, apple wedges and bamboo leaf garnishes. Children sang to her from a distance.

Xin Xing celebrated the Chinese lunar New Year with four wobbly-footed cubs, including two great-granddaughters, Xi Xi and Qing Qing, at the Chongqing Zoo.

Xin Xing’s parents could not be identified, and her male companion, Chuan Chuan, died in 2010. Her survivors, too many to name, include a son, Le Le, in the Memphis Zoo; a grandson, Tuan Tuan, in the Taipei Zoo; a granddaughter, Er Shun, who was recently returned to China from the Calgary Zoo; and her great-grand cubs Jia Panpan, Jia Yueyue, Yuan Zai and Yuan Bao.

As Xin Xing grew older and her temperament softened, her attachment to her caretakers grew stronger, the zoo said.

In her final years, Mr Zhang moved to a room 20 yards (18m) from her enclosure to watch over her at night. To spare her aging teeth, he pared down bamboo shoots, feeding her the shucked stems and tender leaves.

“She is like a family member to me,” he told the local news media, adding, “I will take care of her for the rest of her days.”

In the past two months, the giant panda began losing her voracious appetite. Her gait grew unsteady. She developed difficulties breathing and a persistent cough.

In the end, the nation’s top panda experts could not save her, the zoo said.