|BEIJING - She\'ll have to give up American cookies and get used to much cooler weather, but life in China could be worse on the eve of Valentine\'s Day because Hua Mei already has three prospective suitors.|
Hua Mei, a giant panda born at sunny California\'s San Diego Zoo, arrived at her ancestral home in the chill and fog of southwestern China\'s mountains late Friday to become the first panda born abroad to return to the panda homeland.
After her two-day journey from America to Sichuan province, caretakers at the Wolong Nature Reserve said they had switched on the heating and set out a pile of the freshest home-grown bamboo to welcome her back to the motherland.
The four-and-a-half-year-old, the first U.S.-born endangered panda to live more than a few hours and whose name means China-America, faces a period of adjustment.
She will be quarantined for about a month, switch to Chinese biscuits and bamboo from U.S. varieties and adapt to temperatures as low as minus three Celsius (27 Fahrenheit), about 10 degrees lower than the coldest in San Diego.
Then, if all goes as planned, it\'s time to have some fun.
\"We have chosen three male pandas,\" said Wei Rongping, assistant to the director of Wolong\'s Panda and Research Center. \"We hope one or two could become her boyfriend later.\"
She should get along just fine in Wolong\'s White Dragon Valley, a mountainous area 100 km (60 miles) from the provincial capital, Chengdu, Wei told Reuters.
\"The panda is a species that can easily adjust to a new environment,\" he said. \"It prefers cold climates to warm ones.
\"Still, we built a new dormitory for her with a heating system, because Sichuan is colder than San Diego.\"
For a month Hua Mei will live alone in the stilted wooden hut, heated to five degrees Celsius (41 Fahrenheit), with a fenced-off yard of her own.
\"The door to the outside is open,\" said Wei. \"She can decide for herself whether to go out.\"
During the long flight over, she was still eating fortified biscuits from the United States, but her Chinese keepers will begin gradually to alter her diet right away.
\"We will offer her a small quantity of Chinese bamboo, Chinese-made biscuits and Chinese fruits today,\" said Wei.
Only 1,000 giant pandas survive around the Sichuan basin while about 140 live in captivity around the world.
Hua Mei returned under the rules of China\'s loan program, which requires cubs of panda pairs born abroad to be repatriated within three years.
Her father, Shi Shi, returned last January and Hua Mei was to follow on his heels, but the deadly SARS outbreak delayed her voyage, the official Xinhua news agency said.
It was unknown if she would ever be reunited with her father.
\"He is in the Guangzhou Zoo now. He is very old,\" said Wei.
But Shi Shi\'s 85-kg (200-lb) daughter has reached the prime age to reproduce, although pandas are notoriously hard to breed in captivity. They come on heat only once a year for a couple of days and can be highly selective about their mates.
\"We chose the males according to their genes,\" said Wei. \"We want to avoid inbreeding.\"
Story by Jonathan Ansfield
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE