BEIJING // The subject of the photo looks out from behind bars, with newspapers arranged in front of him to prove what day it is.
This “proof of life” shot is not a scene from a kidnapping but an effort by the Taipei Zoo to debunk rumours that a prized panda recently died.
Photos released by the zoo this week show 11-year-old Tuan Tuan looking at the papers laid out in front of his enclosure.
The website of China's official Communist Party newspaper Global Times had reported the panda died of canine distemper – a viral illness with no known cure, sending the story racing across the Chinese-language internet.
The paper later retracted the story and apologised for not checking its facts, a potentially grievous error given the political sensitivity surrounding the panda pair.
Beijing claims the self-governing island of Taiwan as its own territory, to be brought under its control by force if necessary.
Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, whose combined names translate as Reunion, were sent by Beijing to Taiwan in December 2008 as a sign of improving ties between the political rivals, following the election of pro-China president Ma Ying-jeou as the island’s leader.
Giant pandas exist only in China and are rebounding from the brink of extinction. Beijing has often used the animals as gifts to other countries to make political statements about its relationship with other governments.
The rumours of Tuan Tuan’s death came just days before the inauguration of Mr Ma’s successor, Tsai Ing-wen, whose party formally supports Taiwan’s formal independence from China.
The zoo’s director said that Tuan Tuan, his partner Yuan Yuan and their cub Tuan Zai are all fine.
“We welcome everyone to visit them at the zoo,” said director Chin Shih-chien said.
* Associated Press and Reuters