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Chinese panda, given to Taiwan as a symbol of friendship, dies

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TAIPEI, Taiwan — Tuan Tuan, one of two giant pandas that China donated to the island in 2008 as a symbol of unity and friendship, died Saturday afternoon while in an induced coma, Taipei Zoo officials said.

The 18-year-old male panda had become increasingly frail and suffered a series of seizures last week, zoo officials said at a news conference, without giving a direct cause of death. “At 1:48 PM, Tuan Tuan’s heart stopped beating and will no longer suffer,” Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je added in a social media post on Saturday.

Tuan Tuan’s declining health has been a matter of serious concern to the zoo’s veterinary team since August. The bear was struggling to walk on its hind legs, officials noted, and ate only half the amount of bamboo it had eaten in previous months.

Efforts to save the animal inspired a rare moment of cooperation between China and Taiwan this month, when Beijing sent a pair of panda experts to visit Tuan Tuan and assist the bear’s team of veterinarians and daily caretakers. In a statement at the time, the Taipei Zoo expressed its gratitude for the joint effort — detailing how Taiwanese officials had communicated with experts at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, in Sichuan province, to seek advice about caring for the giant panda. bear.

Zoo workers took Tuan Tuan’s life after he suffered more seizures this month, believed to be related to a brain tumor, according to CNA, Taiwan’s official news agency. The average lifespan of a wild panda is 14 to 20 years, but they can live much longer in captivity, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Tributes to the giant panda by Taiwanese officials since his death recognized his symbolic role in fostering ties between Taiwan and China, especially in the last weeks of his life.

“Tuantuan has been at the Taipei Zoo for more than 10 years, bringing joy and good memories to many Taiwanese friends,” the Taiwan Council for Mainland Affairs said in a statement after his death. “More understanding will help exchanges across the strait.”

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For at least decades — some dating back to the Tang dynasty in the 7th century — Beijing has practiced “panda diplomacy,” donating the black and white bears to other countries, including the United States, the Soviet Union, Hong Kong, and North Korea . Initially, a form of Taiwan rejected Beijing’s proposed pandas for fear that the animals would act as a propaganda tool for the mainland government. However, in 2008, after a change of government, the position was reversed and Taipei accepted Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, who were born two days apart. The bears became instant celebrities, leading to news reports of “pandamania.”

Relations between China and the island, which has an independent, democratically elected government, have deteriorated significantly over the past 14 years.

After pro-independence proponent Tsai Ing-wen was elected president of Taiwan in 2016, China hardened its approach to the island, cutting off official communications with the Taiwanese government and ending years of cooperation between both sides of the Strait, officials said. hoped that they would lead to unification and that officials in Taipei believed the conflict would be avoided.

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Tensions have escalated further in the past year. In August, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visited the island and met Tsai, becoming the first House speaker to travel to Taiwan since 1997. Chinese leaders called it a violation of territorial rights and a deliberate provocation. In response, Beijing launched military exercises around the island that Taiwan officials said amounted to a “naval and air blockade.” Chinese military jets now ignore the centerline of the strait, an unofficial boundary that both sides largely respected for decades. The escalation has led many Taiwanese to fear that the Chinese military could launch a full-scale invasion of the island.

Sands reported from London.

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