Crate conditioning, food and language: Preparing panda Le Le for his move to China

During sessions, which usually last about 30 minutes each, keepers ensure that he is comfortable staying in the crate.

Chin Hui Shan

Chin Hui Shan

The Straits Times


Le Le in his customised crate, which will be used to take him to Chengdu, China, on an SIA flight in January 2024. PHOTO: MANDAI WILDLIFE GROUP/ THE STRAITS TIMES

December 14, 2023

SINGAPORE – Since Le Le was first introduced to his customised crate on Nov 27, panda keepers have been conditioning him to enter the metal container with food rewards.

This is to encourage him to move into the crate voluntarily and get used to it.

In his fifth and latest session of conditioning, he even fell asleep in the crate for 40 minutes before exiting, assistant curator Trisha Tay at Mandai Wildlife Group said on Dec 13.

During these sessions, which usually last about 30 minutes each, keepers ensure that he is comfortable staying in the crate.

The crate will be used to take the two-year-old panda to Chengdu, China, on a Singapore Airlines (SIA) flight in January 2024.

“I think he’s quite comfortable with the process, and we are quite confident that he will do well in this whole transition period,” Ms Tay told the media.

Le Le made his last public appearance at River Wonders in Mandai on Dec 13, a day before he begins a 4½-week quarantine to prepare for the plane journey.

Ms Tay is one of the staff members who will accompany Le Le to China to help with his transition.

Training him to get used to the crate not only eliminates the need to sedate him for the flight, but also minimises the stress for both the panda cub and his keepers on the day of the flight, Ms Sim Pei Ying, a senior keeper at Mandai Wildlife Group, told The Straits Times.

During his quarantine before his departure, Le Le will undergo health checks, including blood sampling to screen for diseases and chest radiographs to rule out signs of a tuberculosis infection, to ensure he is in good shape for the journey.

Flight to China

On Jan 16, Le Le will embark on a 4½-hour flight on a Boeing 747-400F freighter, which will leave Changi Airport at 7.15pm for Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport.

Captain Nithaar Zain, the chief pilot, said he was “really excited” to transport Le Le – his first giant panda passenger.

While he will ensure that the loading and unloading of the panda cub goes smoothly, Capt Nithaar said the most challenging part of the flight is to avoid turbulence.

“When you’re a passenger and turbulence is coming, pilots will advise you to put on your seat belt. But for livestock, they have no idea and might feel a bit uncomfortable or nervous, so we really try to avoid turbulence as far as possible,” he told ST.

He has flown the freighter for 15 years and transported live animals like horses, cows and sheep.

To maximise comfort for the VIP (Very Important Panda), Capt Nithaar said he will check all weather reports and speak with air traffic controllers for information on turbulence.

He added that the flight crew will ensure the landing is as smooth as possible, so that Le Le’s ears do not “pop”.

While Le Le may not have cabin crew attending to him, he will be joined by Ms Tay, as well as a veterinarian from Mandai Wildlife Group and a keeper from China, on his maiden flight.

They will monitor him and ensure that he is comfortable and calm during the flight.

His custom-made crate measures 1.7m long, 1.1m wide and 1.3m high, and took two weeks to build.

It comes with a removable plywood board at each end to facilitate mealtimes and checks when needed.

The ambient cabin temperature will be maintained between 15 deg C and 16 deg C, similar to the temperature of Le Le’s habitat at River Wonders’ Pavilion Capital Giant Panda Forest.

Mr Gajandran Sokayan, assistant manager for dangerous goods and special cargo at SIA, said the humidity in the cargo hold will also be kept low. Mr Gajandran, who has been with SIA Cargo for half a century, added that his involvement in the transportation of Jia Jia and Kai Kai from China in 2012 helped him to facilitate the transport of their child this time round.

His in-flight meal includes up to 50kg of some of his favourite food, like bamboo, bamboo shoots, apples, carrots and pellets. He now weighs 75kg.

Upon his arrival in Chengdu at about 11.30pm, Le Le will be transported to a quarantine facility in Huaying, Guang’an City, in Sichuan province.

Ms Tay said: “Our team will be there for a couple of days to help ensure he settles in well, and take the opportunity to further brief our China colleagues on the care routine for Le Le.”

Besides the care routine, Ms Tay and her colleagues will also inform their Chinese counterparts about the panda cub’s favourite activities, his health and medical history, and the commands he responds to.

Adapting to changes

Le Le will have to get used to eating wowotou – a cake-like feed made of corn, rice and soya beans fed to captive pandas in China.

Shaped into cakes and steamed for four hours, wowotou has the texture of a dense huat kueh (a traditional Chinese steamed rice cake) and tastes like tofu.

It is a much-needed source of protein for captive pandas.

Chinese panda keepers told ST in 2021 that returning pandas are known to take some time to get used to eating it.

In case he does not get used to wowotou, Le Le will still have a week’s supply of pellets from Singapore to fall back on.

A 2016 report described how a pair of giant panda twins born in the United States caught up with local dialects and adapted to local delicacies in their new home in Sichuan province when they returned.

At first, they could respond with only a confused look when hearing their names called out in the Sichuan dialect, but would respond to English orders immediately, according to the pandas’ breeder.

The pandas also preferred “Western fast food” to wowotou.

While Le Le is used to English commands, Ms Tay said language will not likely be a huge hurdle for him.

This is because animals recognise food rewards more than the language used for cues, she said.

Furthermore, staff from Singapore will use hand signals, which the Chinese keepers can follow, while speaking Mandarin, to help him with the change in language.

“Prior to their move to Singapore, Kai Kai and Jia Jia were also accustomed to prompts in Mandarin, but now we use English with them,” said Ms Tay, referring to Le Le’s parents.

Le Le is the first and only panda cub born in Singapore after Kai Kai and Jia Jia arrived here in 2012 on loan from China.

It took them seven attempts to conceive the cub.

Under the terms of Chinese panda loan agreements, cubs born on foreign soil are generally returned to China when they turn two.


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