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Washington pandas get Christmas gift of $4.5 million

Giant panda Tian Tian is pictured at the Giant Panda Habitat at Smithsonian's National Zoological Park in Washington
Giant panda Tian Tian is pictured at the Giant Panda Habitat at Smithsonian's National Zoological Park in Washington

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The National Zoo was given $4.5 million by a philanthropist on Monday to fund its giant panda program, which faces a lack of cubs produced by its two adults, the zoo said.

The donation by David M. Rubenstein, founder and managing director of The Carlyle Group, a private equity firm, will allow the zoo to run the program for another five years, the zoo said in a statement.

Rubenstein's "generosity will enable us and our Chinese partners to continue our conservation work to give this critically endangered species the chance to survive in its native habitat," said John Marriott, chairman of the Smithsonian's National Zoo Advisory Board.

The zoo's two giant pandas -- male Tian Tian and female Mei Xiang -- are on loan from China and are among Washington's top attractions.

Although the animals have delighted crowds of visitors to their zoo complex, they have produced only one cub in their 10 years in Washington.

Zoo scientists have worked with Chinese counterparts to design a breeding program for 2012. The year could be crucial since no panda has been found to reproduce successfully after five consecutive failures, and Mei Xiang falls in that category, the statement said.

If the pandas do not mate successfully, the zoo will use frozen semen from the San Diego Zoo this year.

Tian Tian, the male, has shown preliminary rutting behaviors, such as "powerwalking," the statement said. Mei Xiang has shown no signs of being in heat.

Rubenstein's gift also lets the zoo and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's scientific team go ahead with the five-year panda plan set up with the China Wildlife Conservation Association.

That program includes examining the creation of corridors to link giant panda habitats, restoration of habitats and providing advice on reproduction, the statement said.

In recognition of his donation, the pandas' complex will be renamed the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat. Biologists in the United States and China who win National Zoo fellowships for their panda work will be named David M. Rubenstein Fellows.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Jerry Norton)

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