19:38 GMT +320 September 2017
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    A panda named as Aibao, a two-year-old female, is seen during a media preview event at South Korea's Everland Amusement and Animal Park in Yongin, south of Seoul, on April 7, 2016

    Chinese Panda Couple Draws Stream of Fans From Home and Abroad

    © AFP 2017/ JUNG YEON-JE
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    A couple of giant panda bears, one of the world's most endangered species, are doing wonders for Everland, South Korea's No. 1 amusement park, drawing zoo visitors from across and outside the country like a magnet.

    Park Sang-min, a 12-year-old Korean elementary schooler, is one of the rare animal's ardent fans.

    Accompanied by his father, Park, a big fan of the Kung Fu Panda film series, traveled over 300 kilometers from his hometown Daegu to Yongin near Seoul on Saturday evening just to see a real giant panda couple at Everland on the following day.

    "I could hardly sleep a wink last night, thinking only about my first meeting with pandas," the boy said on Sunday morning while waiting his turn to enter Everland's Panda World, the country's only place to see the animal.

    Not everybody shows such enthusiasm for pandas. But some do, particularly parents, for educational reasons, and Chinese people. Pandas often represent China as its leaders do not skip visiting the place which accommodates pandas overseas.

    Ten minutes before the zoo's opening hour of 10 a.m. on May 29, more than 100, mostly parents with their children and dozens of foreigners, were waiting in queues to meet three-year-old female panda Ai Bao and her four-year-old male partner Le Bao from the Chinese southwestern province of Sichuan.

    Among them were Zhang Xinyu, a 27-year-old Chinese native, who teaches her native language at a Chinese language institute in Seoul, and Jason Murray, a 42-year-old traveler from Canada. They said they hadn't seen a panda, which is a national treasure in China and therefore is protected by law.

    "As pandas largely live in the wild southwestern bamboo-rich areas of China or downtown zoos in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, we have to be there to see one," said Zhang from the northeastern province of Jilin.

    Murray came to the zoo not to miss a "rare chance to see a real panda" during his one-week trip to Korea with his girlfriend. 

    Since its public opening on April 21, a daily average of 10,000 people have visited the 20 billion won (US$17 million) Panda World designed by German zoo designing company Dan Pearlman, Samsung C&T said. More than eight million people visit Everland annually in a country with a population of 51.58 million as of April.

    Last month, a total of 7,000 employees of China's multi-level marketing company JM Group looked around the Panda World in two groups as part of their incentive trip to Korea from May 6-10, the company said.

    "Some 300,000 tourists from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong come to Everland each year. We expect the figure to increase by 50 percent this year due to the pandas," Samsung C&T Executive Vice President Andy Cho in charge of the Everland theme park said.

    Under a 15-year contract with the Chinese government, Samsung will pay 1 billion won each year in rental fees for the Bao couple, but sales likely boosted by pandas are expected to overwhelm the rental costs.

    Clumsy Panda Escapes Quickly After Failing To Attack
    © Photo: Youtube/iPanda
    The rental fees collected from 14 panda-renting countries are spent on China's efforts to foster and conserve pandas. As of the end of 2015, there were only about 2,000 pandas alive, including 52 outside China.

    The Bao couple was sent from Sichuan after Seoul and Beijing agreed to conduct joint research on pandas during Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Korea in July 2014. The word Bao means treasure and Ai and Le have the meaning of lovely and joyful, respectively.

    In "panda diplomacy," China has a long tradition of sending pandas to foreign countries as a gesture of building up bilateral relations.

    It is the second time for Korea to rent a panda couple since Ming Ming and Li Li were sent back to China in February 1999 after a four-year stay here following the 1998 Asian financial crisis.

    Pandas came back in nearly two decades, this time with a facility investment and determination by Samsung Group's heir apparent Lee Jae-yong. He said Samsung will change Panda World into a "global tourist attraction" during the Boao Forum for Asia held in China in March last year.

    Samsung made extra efforts to differentiate its panda facility from others.

    A step into the Panda World does not allow an immediate meeting with pandas.

    As if to brag about advanced technologies of tech giant Samsung Group, the panda facility is fully equipped with ultra high-definition TVs on the ceiling and the walls and touch-screen digital kiosks that show what the panda is all about.

    The "Welcome Ring," composed of two rows of 36 65-inch UHD TVs encircling the dome-type ceiling with a diameter of nine meters, meets visitors with panda characters dancing and singing to deliver a welcome message. In the space of "Pre Show" leading to a large glass-and-steel cage, 50 UHD TVs and other electronic gadgets await visitors.

    The 2,300-square-meter cage comes up right after a photo zone. Children ran to railing barriers from which they can look down at the bears, strolling about just five to 10 meters away.

    On Sunday morning, the pandas looked a bit excited when visitors took a picture of them using selfie sticks and children screamed out with joy.

    Keeper Kang Cher-won, 47, in charge of them asked the visitors to not use a selfie stick for pictures and not let their kids scream as "pandas feel threatened by sticks and uncomfortable with screaming."

    Kang, who also took care of the Ming-Li panda couple at Everland in the 1990s, couldn't hide his strong affection towards pandas when he talked about his efforts to become familiar with the Bao couple in China and help them settle down in Korea.

    "It took two weeks before the Bao couple recognized me by voice and smell in China. We will focus on feeding them well and growing them into healthy adult pandas before their breeding season comes in March and April in 2019," the veteran keeper of 28 years said.

    Splish Splash! How a Panda Takes a Bath
    YouTube/Smithsonian's National Zoo
    Le Bao and Ai Bao have gained more than 10 kilograms in weight each from 95 and 86 since they were moved into the Panda World on March 3. They daily consume 15-20 kilograms of their staple food bamboo raised in Hadong, South Gyeongsang province. The temperature of the cage is kept at 18-20 C and its rooftop can be opened for ventilation.

    Pandas with a life expectancy of 25 years have only one to three childbearing days a year. An average of 30 pandas are born across the world annually. A newborn panda is only about 18 centimeters long and demands a great deal of care for survival.

    If a panda couple residing outside China gives birth, the baby panda should be sent back within five years after birth under the contract signed between China and panda-renting nations, Kang said.

    "Now I am father of the pandas. I want to be called grandfather of their cubs. That's my prime goal for the rest of my career," he said.

    By Choi Kyong-ae (Yonhap)

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