You’d never know it to look at him now, but unique panda Qizai has had a very difficult life. In fact, Qizai’s mother abandoned him when he was just a cub and left him completely defenseless. However, now aged seven, the cute brown panda is in good care and recognized as special in many ways.
At the beginning of his life, though, Qizai was found all on his own as a two-month-old cub. Yes, the abandoned baby was struggling for survival deep in the nature reserve of China’s Qingling Mountains. Thankfully, however, rescuers took in the little panda and brought him to the Shaanxi Rare Wildlife Rescue.
It was while at this breeding and research center that the cub was given the name Qizai, which means “the seventh son.” The staff also saved panda milk from the sanctuary’s nursing moms to bottle feed the little tyke.
But as Qizai grew bigger and was introduced to the sanctuary’s other pandas, he still faced difficulties. The primary factor among these was that the other pandas saw him as weak and took advantage of him.
“He eats more slowly than the others,” explained panda keeper He Xin the MailOnline. During feedings, then, the pandas with which Qizai shared a home would often take off with his bamboo.
Therefore, making friends has been something of a challenge for Qizai. But it could be that he is simply not their type. After all, as a Qinling Mountain panda, he is thought to be a sub-species of the giant panda. And, with his brown-and-white coloring, he’s a unique one at that.
In fact, Qizai is such an anomaly that scientists are keen to investigate just what makes his fur brown. And now that he’s seven years old, he’s ready to start mating. So if researchers can successfully breed Qizai with another panda, they might gain further insight on his coloring from his offspring.
But finding the perfect mate for Qizai will be tricky, as no other brown panda is known to currently exist. In fact, only five documented sightings of brown pandas have been recorded in the last 30 years.
Curiously, all of the sightings have been in the Qinling Mountains, according to vet and conservation photographer Katherine Feng. “The Qinling Mountain pandas are considered a different sub-species from those found in other mountain ranges,” Feng told the MailOnline. In their genes, then, they likely hold the secret to this rare coloring.
“It is suspected that the brown and white coloring of pandas has a genetic basis, possible a result of a double recessive gene, a combination of genes or a dilution factor gene,” Feng continued. And any display of the color mutation is rare. For example, Qizai’s mom had the typical black and white fur.
But shades of the trait do appear. “The pandas in Shaanxi have lighter fur color than the Sichuan pandas,” panda keeper He said. “Some of them have dark brown fur around the stomach. But Qizai is the most brown panda of them all,” he added.
So, in order to get Qizai ready for impending fatherhood, he was moved to Foping Panda Valley in 2014. That’s where he first met 26-year-old He, who dedicates his days to making sure that the pampered bear is comfortable, fed and watered.
Indeed, He gets up at the crack of dawn to give Qizai his 6:00 a.m. feeding. Then He doesn’t clock off until midnight after he’s tucked the panda into bed. In fact, He’s more like a personal assistant to this celebrity bear than he is a panda keeper.
However, it’s clear to see that there’s a special bond between the pair. In fact, He finds Qizai more adorable than the other, more ordinary, pandas – even if the brown bear isn’t as fast. To He, all Qizai’s unique traits make him even more special.
“He is slower than the other pandas, but he is also cuter,” He said, adding that Qizai was a “gentle, funny and adorable animal.” But Qizai takes his time with more than just eating. “All pandas here have names. When I call out their names, the other black-and-white pandas would react and come to me quickly, but for Qizai, it usually takes sometime [for] him to realize that.”
Still, Qizai is now enjoying the special treatment at his new home. Indeed, he is kept separate from the other pandas and has his very own enclosure. Plus, the slow-eater enjoys a varied diet of milk, bamboo and flour buns.
Despite his less than perfect beginnings, then, Qizai is now the picture of health. He weighs in at an impressive 220 pounds and can chomp his way through 44 pounds of bamboo a day. So the future is looking bright for Qizai, who’ll no doubt be at his best when researchers finally find him the perfect mate.
There’s also been some good news for the panda population in general recently. In September 2016, after years of conservation efforts, it was announced that the giant panda was no longer considered endangered. Yes, the International Union for Conservation of Nature reported that it was reclassifying the species as now “vulnerable.”
Thankfully, this is the result of a decrease in panda poaching and improved efforts by the Chinese government to protect panda habitats. “For over fifty years, the giant panda has been the globe’s most beloved conservation icon as well as the symbol of WWF. Knowing that the panda is now a step further from extinction is an exciting moment for everyone,” said WWF Director General Marco Lambertini.
Since 2004, panda numbers have risen by 17 percent, with 1,860 giant pandas now estimated to be living in the wild. Hopefully, then, Qizai will soon be able to help out with the panda population himself.