Taiwan zoo denies reports that giant panda given by China has died

File photo of giant pandas from China, Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, displayed in their enclosure at the Taipei City Zoo in Muzha, on Jan 24, 2009.
File photo of giant pandas from China, Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, displayed in their enclosure at the Taipei City Zoo in Muzha, on Jan 24, 2009. PHOTO: REUTERS

TAIPEI (AFP) - Taipei Zoo was forced to deny reports that a giant panda gifted by China as a symbol of unity had died on Monday (May 16), in what initially appeared to be a frightening portent for cross-strait ties.

Tuan Tuan was one of two pandas given to the island in 2008 in a move seen to endorse the presidency of Beijing-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou. The animal's name means "reunion" and was interpreted as a reflection of China's ambition to reunite self-ruling Taiwan with the mainland.

But as Mr Ma prepares to step down and Taiwan ushers in new China-sceptic leader Tsai Ing-wen - intensely disliked by Beijing - reports circulated online that Tuan Tuan had died of distemper.

News of the death in Chinese media, including huanqiu.com and People's Daily, triggered laments on the mainland that Beijing's propaganda machine had failed.

"Tuan Tuan is dead. Propaganda is hopeless," said one post on People's Daily Twitter feed.

Others welcomed the news, with one post on Taiwan's Liberty Times website saying: "It's good... we don't have to spend so much money raising a Chinese panda."

As the story spread, Taipei Zoo insisted Tuan Tuan and his fellow pandas were very much alive.

"All three pandas are in good health," said zoo spokesman Eric Tsao.

Huanqiu.com later issued a correction and apology to the zoo and Internet users.

People's Daily also posted a correction via Twitter saying it had been "misinformed".

Some in Taiwan slammed the false reports - others joked China would have gone to war with Taiwan if the panda had actually died.

"Haha, in the future history will report that China attacked Taiwan because of a panda," one message on the Apple Daily website said.

Another speculated that pro-indepedence groups would have been blamed for the panda's death.

Although a fully fledged democracy, Taiwan has never formally declared a breakaway from China.

Taiwanese pro-independence groups criticised the Ma government for accepting Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan in 2008, saying they were part of Beijing's pro-reunification push.

But political scepticism did not taint public acceptance and they became a star attraction.

Panda-mania swept Taiwan again after the pair produced cub Yuan Zai in 2014, following a series of artificial insemination sessions.