Taiwan's new pandas missing Sichuan food

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China's cuddliest ambassadors, a pair of giant pandas dispatched to Taiwan to help ease tensions, have been losing weight since their arrival on the self-ruled island last week because of lack of exercise and the fact they miss Sichuan home-style food.

Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, whose names said together mean "reunion" in Chinese, have each lost nearly four kilos since their arrival last Tuesday, despite the best efforts of their Taipei hosts to wean them onto Taiwanese bamboo shoots, Xinhua news agency reported.

Beijing and Taipei have been deadly rivals since they split after the Chinese civil war in 1949, when the losing Kuomingtang forces under Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan. Relations have improved vastly since the election of China-friendly Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou.

Pandas are China's national symbol and have serious diplomatic muscle. Beijing has a long history of using pandas in international relations. Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan are "diplomat pandas," whose job it is to help cement warmer relations across the Strait of Taiwan.

Taiwan has spared no expense at ensuring the comfort of the two four-year-olds, whose home was destroyed in the Sichuan earthquake in May.

Their enclosure cost £6m, a staff of 35 zookeepers plus a team of volunteers will look after them, and maintaining the pandas will cost £210m a year. They also have a 765-square-metre garden and a playground behind four-cm-thick, soundproofed glass. The zoo is installing a themed exhibition centre next door.

The interior of their enclosures has been painted with scenes of snowy mountains, thick forest and flowing rivers just like their home in Sichuan.

The pair will meet the adoring public during Lunar New Year in January, depending on how they adapt to their new home. To make it easier, visitors are allowed only a brief glimpse of the two pandas, and flash photography is forbidden.

These two pandas bear huge responsibility on their black and white shoulders. Since 1957, Beijing has given pandas to nine countries, including Japan, North Korea, the US and the former Soviet Union. China first used panda diplomacy with the US back in 1975, when it sent pair of the beasts to Washington to coincide with a visit by Richard Nixon.

Famous for spending more time sleeping or eating than breeding, the Taiwan zoo will try to mate the pair and may return any cub to China, a zoo official said.

The two pandas are now tentatively tasting Taiwan-grown bamboo, an encouraging sign given that they wouldn't even touch it when they first arrived, said zoo spokesman Jason S.C. Chin.

"In the beginning they refused Taiwan bamboo. Now they are getting used to it…I think they will have a completely local diet in next three to five days."