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BEYOND THE PANDAS' CUTENESS FACTOR

There's no way around the cuteness factor. Even Don Lindburg, the head of the panda team at the San Diego Zoo, sheepishly acknowledges what he calls "the ultimate in cuddlesomeness."

Less romantic scientists talk about "neoteny," a collection of traits -- big eyes, large head, round body -- that elicit some instinct, they say, for care-giving. But the rest of us look a panda bear in the face and go to "warm fuzzies."

Anyway you figure it, the cuteness factor has given giant panda bears a PR leg up in the endangered species race for public attention. And here, it has made a 5-month-old, 17-pound ball of black-and-white fur named Hua Mei the virtual mascot of the zoo.

Ever since her heralded birth, Hua Mei has led a kind of "Truman Show" existence. She and her mother are sequestered behind a sign that says "Baby Panda Quiet Zone." But a camera follows their every move, sending it live onto the zoo's Web site. In one month alone, some 4.5 million people followed them on the Internet.

Hua Mei has become an international star whose public debut next month may elicit lines of Disney World proportions. Already, this huge zoo is overwhelmed by pandas: panda T-shirts and ties, panda bibs and backpacks, even a panda toaster.

Indeed, there are more stuffed pandas sold here in a week than there are real pandas in the world. Which, of course, gets to the point.

Once upon a time, zoos captured animals from the wild. Now we can barely define "wild," and zoos have reversed roles. The best of them now are in the science of saving endangered species and giving them a chance to reproduce.

Lindburg describes Hua Mei's birth as truly a managed-care production. The zoo's Center for the Reproduction of Endangered Species brought two pandas from China on a research loan: Shi Shi, a rescued male, and Bai Yun, a female born in captivity. Through two mating seasons, Shi Shi rejected Bai Yun's advances. Finally, on the last night of the third season, the CRES scientists turned to artificial insemination.

If Hua Mei's birth 135 days later is marvelous, it is also poignant. How many people, after all, needed how much knowledge to help pandas do artificially what they have done naturally for eons? It's a great feat to mimic nature, but for all his pleasure at success, Lindburg acknowledges ruefully, "It's a role we would rather not have."

There are 127 pandas in captivity and barely a thousand roaming free in Asia. It's a story repeated with animals across the world. As the Worldwatch Institute reported this month, extinction threatens 11 percent of the bird species, 25 percent of mammals and 34 percent of fish.

Increasingly, humans have inherited the role of managing what is left of nature. The $1 million the zoo pays China for the research loan of two pandas goes to preserves in China. But as Lindburg knows, "many preserves are just lines on a map."

The dream of this panda team is not just a sister or brother for Hua Mei. It's to help establish a research station in prime panda territory and maintain a long-term relationship with the Chinese who live nearby, people who need a vested interest -- whether environmentalism or ecotourism -- in saving the pandas. It's to protect the habitat.

If all we do is save a species for display, then the panda will become nothing but an adorable artifact from an extinct world. But, says Lindburg, "If you protect the panda, you're protecting the golden monkey, the monal pheasants, the takins."

In the CRES building, there's a letter from one of the millions of Internet Panda watchers. A whole kindergarten class in Davis, Calif., writes, "We know that a baby panda is at your zoo. How is the baby doing?" This is what I can report: so far, so good. Hua Mei has taken her first steps outside the den. Soon it will be show-and-tell time. And she's leading us way beyond cute.

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