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Pandas Entertain Las Vegas Tourists

Las Vegas Nevada is famous for its gambling halls, spectacular hotels, and wedding chapels. Now, one casino hopes to add Giant Pandas to that list, by importing a pair of the endangered animals from China. The Mandalay Bay resort want to make the city a destination for both animal lovers and scientists.

This is the place for some wild life play the roulette wheel, see a topless cabaret, bet on a boxing match. But is it a place for wildlife?

"People's initial reaction is 'what the heck is a Panda doing in a casino?'" says David Towne. What indeed? Mr. Towne, president of the North American Giant Panda Conservation Foundation says there's nothing wrong with allowing the 38-million tourists who visit Las Vegas each year to see the endangered species. But he says having the pandas on show to the public has to be secondary to research, and the money earned has to go back to the Chinese. "There has to be a scientific basis for importing pandas and that scientific basis has to benefit pandas in the wild. It can educate, there can be enjoyment, but the core issue has to be of scientific merit," he says.

Mandalay Bay is not a typical scientific research site. It's a 3,000 room hotel-casino designed to evoke Burma in the 1800's, a lush tropical oasis on the south end of the Las Vegas Strip. The company intends to build a one-hectare "Panda Pavilion" adjoining the hotel, and it has applied to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a permit to bring giant pandas to Las Vegas.

As Mr. Towne noted, With only about 1,500 giant pandas left in the world, pandas may only be imported for serious research projects that help the Chinese in their studies of the solitary animals that can breed for just three days a year.

If pandas in the Nevada desert sounds "wild," Mandalay Bay has been wildly successful with sharks in the desert. "Shark Reef" is a $50 million aquarium, with 2000 examples of marine life. Mandalay Bay has sponsored research in the Caribbean that tracks the movements of the endangered green sea turtle.

The president of Canada's Vancouver Aquarium, John Nightingale is impressed. "First, Shark Reef is not in a casino, it's next door to one," he says. "But the proof is that you have one of the largest, most technically advanced, sound, professional operations in North America, right here in Las Vegas and lot of people don't know that!"

Shark Reef designed to look like a flooded temple and sunken shipwreck. Through the overgrown stone structure, you pass golden crocodiles - the only ones outside of Thailand. A clear plexi-glass tunnel takes visitors past moray eels, jellyfish, and stingrays below the water level. . . finally you're in the hull of a creaking sunken ship. Excited children realize they are surrounded by 3-meter long sharks. A solitary green sea turtle passes overhead, then appears under their feet through the glass panel on the floor.

Oh beautiful" . . . "here he comes!

"Pandas are just like Sharks, they are a sneaky way of getting people to pay attention to something that Americans have never thought about, says Mr. Nightingale. He says Mandalay Bay's track record with Shark Reef shows that the gaming company is serious about animal research and education. "I suppose you could build a panda display in Colorado or someplace, but there aren't 38 million people in Colorado - so if we're going to do education - which is for me the primary reason for bringing them here - you need to do it were there are people."

Despite acclaim from the scientific community for Shark Reef, Mandalay Bay officials expect there will be opposition to their plan to bring Giant Pandas to Las Vegas. To help further negotiations with US and Chinese officials, they've hired a former advisor to Presidents Bush and Reagan, Sig Rogich. "We've had significant and positive meetings with the Chinese government, they support the endeavor. If we do what's right, we build the facility with its own entrance, we have a not for profit so we're not receiving funding from the Pandas," he says. "There will be some who think, there's a casino there and why should they be doing it, but the truth is the private sector is as able to help preserve the Panda as any entity in the world and there is no reason why they should not."

Karen Baragona of the World Wildlife Fund can come up with several reasons why not. "It's one thing to say millions of dollars will be raised for wild panda conservation, but to really be able to direct that money to projects that will make an impact is a huge challenge, and to be able to prove that is an even bigger challenge," she says. "They will first have to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that this transaction is not for commercial purposes."

Sig Rogich says that's exactly what Mandalay Bay intends to do in its quest to show that the casino is sincere about making animal research and education the winners. And while the odds may be slim that a visit to Mandalay Bay will include Panda's along with Poker anytime soon, as they say in Las Vegas, the House always wins.