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Eats shoots and leaves: US-born panda Yun Zi starts new life in China

A U.S.-born panda returns to China as part of an effort to save the endangered species. NBC News' Ian Williams reports.

CHENGDU, China -- Yun Zi was nervously exploring his new Chinese home Sunday, pacing back and forth and peeping over the top of grass verge at the curious staff who'll now be looking after him.

He was a little jet-lagged, perhaps, after two days travel half way around the world from his birthplace in Southern California.

The four-and-a-half-year-old giant panda was born in San Diego Zoo, where he's been something of a star. But unlike with people, pandas born in America don't have the right to stay.

Not only are all adult pandas in American zoos owned by China and leased at a hefty fee, but any cubs have to be returned.

First point of call for Yun Zi (which means "Sun of Cloud") was a new Giant Panda Conservation and Disease Control Center in Dujiangyan, near Chengdu, the capital of China's Sichuan province. He'll be quarantined here for a month.

"It can take quite a long time to adapt," says Wei Rongping, the center's director. From the food to the cooler temperature to the keepers -- its all different. Even the language.

"How would Americans pronounce his name?" asked Yang Haidi, who'll be looking after him on a day-to-day basis, and was trying, without much success, to get Yun Zi's attention.

Ian Williams / NBC News

Yun Zi walls nervously around the perimeter of his new compound in Chengdu, China, on Sunday.

Four U.S. zoos lease pandas, which are critically endangered, and very popular attractions.

The new Dujiangyan center will soon be home to 30 pandas -- mostly sick or injured and in need of rehab. There are also some youngsters between six months and one and a half years, as they are most vulnerable to disease.

One of Yun Zi's neighbors is 28-year-old Qian Qian, who was found in the wild with two broken legs.

China used to give pandas as gifts. Since the mid-1980s they are only allowed to be leased, though the granting of leases frequently mirrors China's diplomatic interests.

Forty are currently out on rent, and rentals have been estimated at $1 million per panda per year. A cub incurs an extra cost, and can be recalled at any time once they turn three.

It can seem like an exercise in soft power (everybody seems gaga about pandas) and hard cash, though China insists its all about conservation.

Only about 1,600 pandas are believed to be in left in the wild in China.

And Yun Zi isn't the only giant panda to arrive in Chengdu in recent days with a certain American pedigree.

Ian Williams / NBC News

Denver-based artist Lawrence Argent's work "I am here" weighs 13 tons.

A massive art work of a climbing panda, 50 feet tall and weighing 13 tons, now clings to the side of Chengdu's new International Finance Square, a massive office, retail and hotel complex, that opens this week.

It’s the creation of Denver-based artist Lawrence Argent, whose previous works include a giant blue bear looking into a Denver convention center, and a giant red leaping rabbit at Sacramento Airport.

"I think it can ignite something," said Argent, who is in Chengdu this week. "Art can be a vehicle to raise awareness and make people conscious of the plight of the Panda and the need to protect them."

His artwork, called "I am here," is made of stainless steel and is part of a charity project to raise funds for panda conservation.

Those who'll miss Yun Zi will soon be able to monitor his progress online, as the research cameras in Dujiangyan will soon be accessible via the Internet, and if all goes well this youngster from San Diego will soon join China's panda breeding program.

Ian Williams / NBC News

"I am here" as seen from the street in Chengdu, China.

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