Taiwan’s giant panda ‘Tuan Tuan’ has life-threatening brain disease. China’s been asked to help

China’s famous ‘Panda diplomacy’ faces a test – after a bear in Taiwan came down with a life-threatening brain lesion.

Taipei Zoo told CNN on Thursday they had requested help from experts in China to treat their Giant Panda, Tuan Tuan, after an MRI scan revealed the damage.

They are hoping for support in treating Tuan Tuan after he began behaving abnormally, lost his appetite and suffered a three-minute seizure in late August.

But the request raises the possibility of a delicate diplomatic balancing act, given relations between China and Taiwan have taken a nosedive since US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the self-governing island in August.

China considers Taiwan part of its territory, despite never having governed it, and has vowed to “reunify” it with the Chinese mainland, by force if necessary. Since Pelosi’s visit, it has ramped up pressure on the island by holding a series of military exercises on its doorstep.

Now animal lovers on both sides of the Taiwan Strait will be watching to see how it responds the zoo’s request.

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A goodwill gift – and a political token

Tuan Tuan and his partner Yuan Yuan were gifted to Taiwan by China in 2008 as a goodwill gift from Beijing – as part of its longstanding practice known as “panda diplomacy.”

But the two animals, whose combined names form the word “reunion” in Chinese, were also a subtle political token of the Communist Party’s view of Taiwan.

There have been some signs Beijing is willing to extend the olive branch. Zhu Fenglian, a spokeswoman for mainland China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said the Taipei Zoo had notified the Giant Panda Protection Research Center in Chengdu, Sichuan province, of Tuan Tuan’s condition. And state-run news outlet China Daily reported on Wednesday that experts from China were willing to provide technical support to the zoo and help the animal.

A Taipei Zoo spokesperson said it would “very much welcome the help” but added that Chinese experts “haven’t specified whether they intend to send any experts here this time.”

The spokesperson said that previously, “Both sides have cooperated closely to care for the giant pandas,” and “regularly exchange knowledge.”

“In the past, when the panda gave birth, they also sent experts to assist us,” the spokesperson added.

Since being gifted to Taiwan, Tuan Tuan and his partner Yuan Yuan have given birth to two cubs, one in 2013 and another in 2020.

In a statement, the zoo said Tuan Tuan was “recovering under observation behind the scenes” and it was “necessary to wait for all test results before clarifying the cause [of his illness].”

Pandas’ average life span in the wild is 14-20 years, but they can live far longer in captivity, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. Tuan Tuan turned 18 in August.

Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, the two giant panda gifts from China, eat bamboo leaves inside their new enclosure at the Taipei Zoo on January 26, 2009.AFP/Getty Images

In July, the world’s oldest male giant panda in captivity, named An An, died in captivity in Hong Kong’s Ocean Park. It was 35 years old.

In 2017 the International Union for Conservation of Nature upgraded the species from “endangered” to “vulnerable” after their population grew nearly 17% over the previous decade. That move was mirrored by the Chinese government last year after the wild giant panda population increased to 1,800.

Giant pandas are notoriously hard to breed in captivity, but after years of decline, their numbers in the wild have increased in recent years.

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