Qizai belongs to a rare subspecies that has brown and white fur.  Photo: Xinhua
Qizai belongs to a rare subspecies that has brown and white fur. Photo: Xinhua

China, long known for heaping adoration on its giant pandas, has a new love: the only Qinling panda in captivity.

Qizai, a rare brown and white giant panda, now spends much of his time dozing and scoffing bamboo shoots at a wildlife breeding and research center under the Xi’an Zoo, in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province.

The rotund, nine-year-old, now in his prime, belongs to a subspecies that are more commonly referred to as Qinling pandas in reference to the isolated Qinling Mountains not far away from Xi’an, where these grey pandas are usually found.

While the majority of members of the giant panda family are easily recognized by their distinctive black patches, Qinling pandas almost look as if they have been bleached, or suffer from albinism.

Qizai is now the idol of the nation as the only grey panda in captivity, and his fur makes him look more precocious than other pandas of the same age. Xi’an Zoo maintains a Weibo page for him that now has a total of 100,000 followers.

‘Grey’ panda Qizai is well pampered at a breeding center in central China’s Xi’an. Photos: Xinhua

On August 30, 1989, a female Qinling panda was captured and brought to Xi’an Zoo to be mated with a regular giant panda. Her offspring was black-and-white, but reportedly started becoming brownish as it aged.

The color of the Qingling is possibly a consequence of inbreeding: the wild panda population in the rugged Qingling region is closed off from genetic variation and this might have led to the preservation of a mutation responsible for the change in fur coloring.

There are an estimated 200–300 Qinling pandas living in the wild.

Read more: Rising numbers mean China’s giant panda no longer endangered