Hong Kong panda bears down on world record for longevity

By Venus Wu
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36-year-old giant panda Jia Jia, looks on at the Hong Kong Ocean Park, China

36-year-old giant panda Jia Jia, looks on at the Hong Kong Ocean Park, China July 9, 2015. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Venus Wu

HONG KONG (Reuters) - The oldest giant panda living in captivity is set to challenge the world record for the animals' longevity, with her age said to put her on par with a human centenarian.Hong Kong's giant panda Jia Jia, whose name means "good", will turn 37 this summer at theme park Ocean Park, matching the Guinness World Records title for the oldest panda survivor in captivity - Du Du, who died in 1999, aged 37.

"It is rare for pandas to live to this age," said Grant Abel, the park's director of animal care. "It's probably equivalent to someone, a human person, who would be over a hundred years of age."

Jia Jia's caregivers say they are considering sending an application to Guinness World Records after the celebration of her birthday, which is observed in summer, although the exact date is not known, as she was captured in the wild.

Born in China in 1978, Jia Jia was gifted to Hong Kong in 1999, along with another panda, to mark the second anniversary of the city's handover from former colonial ruler Britain.

She weighs 80 kg and is considered to be in remarkably good health for her age, even though her vision is severely impaired and her hearing has deteriorated, says Paolo Martelli, the park's chief veterinarian.Jia Jia takes medicines for high blood pressure and arthritis. She walks slowly and avoids the exhibition area of her enclosure, preferring to stay at the back and feast on several kilograms of bamboo shoots and leaves, besides fruit and high-fibre bread."The first thing I thought when I saw Jia Jia was, 'Oh my God, she's so old, I'm going to be the one to bury her," Martelli said."But actually it's been 10 years now. And she's had a few ups and downs, but she always manages to bounce back and look surprisingly good for years after that," he said, adding that it was hard to predict her remaining lifespan.

Pandas are endangered because most of their natural habitat has been destroyed for timber, farming and construction, according to conservation group the World Wildlife Fund.     A Chinese government survey in 2014 estimated 1,864 pandas live in the wild, up 17 percent from 2003.  

They also have an exceptionally short breeding season, with females fertile for just 24 to 36 hours a year, says a nonprofit body, Pandas International.      

(Reporting by Venus Wu; Additional reporting by Stefanie McIntyre, Shan Kao and Tyrone Siu; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)