TAIPEI - A bluetooth speaker, some fine sand and black-and-white felt cloth. Oh, don't forget the panda poo. That was all it took to make a faux panda cub good enough to hoodwink a mother.
Called Fangzai, or Little Fake, the stuffed toy spent a few weeks standing in for Yuanzai, the real cub born on July 6 to Yuan Yuan, the resident female panda at Taipei Zoo.
Yuanzai, whose name means Yuan Yuan's Child, had been taken away from her mother shortly after birth as she was found to have a slight injury in the groin. The zoo authorities feared that Yuan Yuan, a 120kg first-time mum, might inadvertently hurt her tiny offspring, which weighed just 183.4g on delivery. That would be a disaster, considering that it took four years to impregnate Yuan Yuan artificially with the sperm of her partner Tuan Tuan.
The bears had arrived in December 2008 from China as a gift to Taiwan, which Beijing regards as part of its territory despite decades of separate rule. "Tuan yuan" means reunion in Chinese.
While Yuanzai was kept in an incubator and fed with milk hand-collected from her mother by keepers, the zoo had to find a way to keep Yuan Yuan in a maternal mood to keep her milk flowing and to prepare her for the eventual return of her daughter.
At first, they simply stuffed black-and-white felt cloth with fine sand, smeared it with the poo of Yuanzai, and handed it to Yuan Yuan. After some sniffing, Yuan Yuan tossed the toy aside.
Help then came in the form of Associate Professor Chou Cheng-ying, a mechatronics engineering expert from the National Taiwan University. She suggested a simple solution: add a Bluetooth speaker to Fangzai, record Yuanzai's shrill cries with a mobile phone, then transmit the sounds to the toy.
"The zoo wanted something that bore more resemblance to the real baby, so we suggested adding the baby's cries. And it worked quite well although at first Yuan Yuan was very anxious when the toy started 'crying'," Prof Chou told The Straits Times. But the nine-year-old bear - a survivor of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake - gradually got used to it and even picked up the toy with her mouth to cradle it in her arms - just like she would the real baby.