Panda lovers compete to be 'Pambassadors'
China's infamous 'panda diplomacy' has taken on a whole new meaning.
This time, instead of giving the national treasures to foreign states as gifts, China has invited people from all over the world to compete to become a panda ambassador - or 'Pambassador' - and to live and care for pandas in Sichuan province's infamous Chengdu Panda Research Base.
The competition, "Project Panda: Make a Difference in Panda Conservation", is jointly run by the base and the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF), and calls itself the first-of-its-kind awareness raising initiative for giant panda conservation.
According to organisers, over 61,600 applicants from more than 52 countries have applied for just six coveted Pambassador positions since the competitions opened a few weeks ago.
Applications closed on September 6.
Zhu Chunquan, Conservation Director at WWF's Beijing office, said that while it may seem like the dream job for panda lovers, it's not all about cuddling cubs.
"This is certainly a very attractive experience, but at the same time there is a lot to learn, and they must go to very inhospitable environments so of course there are a lot of challenges. They need to be able to take risks and able to withstand hardship to deal with a lot of unexpected difficulties," he said.
Twelve finalists from Japan to the Netherlands had been selected by a mixture of public online voting and judgement by a panel in China.
Each finalist has recorded a video message, featuring anything from dancing in a panda costume to a guitar sing-along, but all featuring the furry friends.
The twelve will all spend a week in Chengdu from September 23, learning how to take care of panda cubs, visiting the world's first giant panda release research centre and tracking pandas in the wild.
The winning six will then spend a full month, learning more about conservation and documenting their experiences.
The ultimate goal for the project, says Zhu, is to spread awareness of conservation issues, and Pambassadors will be expected to take an active role in promoting a more sustainable existence to the public and media.
"The competitors have come from many different countries. As we understand, over 61,000 people from over 50 countries have taken place in the competition, and 60 percent of them have been from abroad. Of course, this is all very good for people in other countries to understand giant pandas and other wild animals, and the challenges China faces in protecting pandas," he said.
Giant pandas are one of the most endangered species on earth, with only around 1,600 in the wild, mostly in Sichuan, and around 200 in captivity, 88 of which are in Chengdu Panda Research Base, Zhu said.
Pandas, which eat mostly bamboo and doze frequently, are notoriously hard to breed, with China's breeding centres even showing "panda pornography" to try and get the stubborn animals to mate.
While the six final Pambassadors are likely to be spared such duties, the once-in-a-lifetime experience should do a bit for panda conservation as well as diplomacy.