Japan's oldest giant panda dies

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A death in Japan has provoked an outpouring of grief that befits a national hero. But the tears and bouquets from the public were not for a statesman - not in fact for a person at all - but for a giant panda.

Ling Ling, who was found dead in Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo yesterday morning, was the country’s oldest and best-loved panda. Visitors flocked to pay their respects to the bear, whose death from heart failure will leave Japan’s flagship zoo without a panda for the first time since 1972.

The 22-year-old male was also the only giant panda owned outright by Japan, and had come to symbolise harmonious relations with China. Born in Beijing Zoo in 1985, the animal’s death has provoked speculation that a fresh round of panda diplomacy might begin when the Chinese president Hu Jintao visits next week.

In recent months the panda had been plagued by heart and kidney troubles. With an age equivalent to 70 human years, Ling Ling was believed to have been the fifth-oldest known male panda in the world.

Ling Ling’s death came just a day after being removed from public view because of deteriorating health, and he was mourned by keepers and visitors alike. He had been suffering since August with a loss of appetite and strength because of old age.

Reaction to the bear’s death was emotional, with visitors brushing away tears as they wrote condolence messages and made offerings of bamboo shoots and bouquets. A portrait of the panda, who had become the zoo’s star attraction, was displayed in his cage.

The chief panda keeper at the zoo, Fukuji Sugimoto, said he realised something was wrong as soon as he went into the cage early yesterday morning.

“He always turned around when I called ‘Ling Ling’. This morning he didn’t. I rushed to him and touched his head, and he was already cold”, said Sugimoto. “That broke my heart”, he added, “He was such a darling”.

But Ling Ling was far more to Japan than a well-loved tourist attraction; the panda was a powerful symbol of successful Chino-Japanese diplomacy. He was given to the Japanese in 1992 in exchange for a Japanese-born panda, to commemorate the anniversary of stable relations between the two countries.

Pandas had long been used by China as a symbolic means of smoothing diplomatic relations. This panda diplomacy was most prevalent in the 1970s, when the People’s Republic of China used the animals as part of its first cultural exchanges with America and Japan.

Since the 1990s, the practice of donating pandas was suspended because the animals faced extinction. But now that the eight remaining pandas in Japan are only on loan from the Chinese, the Japanese may be hoping for another donation.

Elaborate attempts to secure Ling Ling an heir, including three failed mating trips to Mexico, were all unsuccessful, and Ueno zoo are already in talks with the foreign ministry about securing another panda from China. At the least, it is anticipated that the Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda will ask Chinese President Hu Jintao to consider loaning two more bears to the zoo.

China is the only country where giant pandas still live in the wild, and their numbers are dwindling. Now there are believed to be no more than 1,600 in total, mostly concentrated in Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces