July 9, 2005

Giant Panda Cub Born at National Zoo in Washington

WASHINGTON -- The National Zoo's giant panda Mei Xiang gave birth early Saturday to a squealing, vigorous cub that was conceived through artificial insemination.

The typical cub weighs 3 ounces to 5 ounces and is about the size of a stick of butter. It was too early to determine the gender and exact weight of the cub, zoo officials said, because veterinarians kept their distance, not wanting to interrupt the mother-cub bonding.

Zoo officials were monitoring the pair via cameras in their indoor enclosure, where they will remain for about three months. The public can get a look through the zoo's Web cam - http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/GiantPandas/

Mei Xiang appeared surprised when the cub was born at 3:41 a.m., but soon picked it up and began caring for it, said Lisa Stevens, the zoo's assistant curator for the rare and endangered bears.

"Mei Xiang is the poster child for a wonderful mom," said Dr. Suzan Murray, the zoo's chief veterinarian, at a news conference.

Because Mei Xiang, 6, and her mate, Tian Tian, 7, are on loan from China, the cub will return to China after it turns 2, under terms of the arrangement. The cub probably will be named by Chinese zoo officials after it turns 100 days old, as is Chinese tradition.

The next few days are critical for the cub's survival. Five cubs born to the zoo's previous pair of pandas all died within a few days. But zoo officials said Mei Xiang and Tian Tian were much younger and did not have the health problems that beset the other pair.

Still, Mei Xiang is herself a first-time mother, pregnant through artificial insemination four months ago after the pandas failed to mate naturally. Doctors plan to allow her to care for the cub unless its health becomes precarious and intervention is required.

"The cub came out squealing, so we knew right away we had a nice, healthy cub from that squeal," Murray said.

Tian Tian will continue to go outside the panda's air-conditioned enclosure and roam the outdoor exhibit as usual.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, two of the most popular and closely watched celebrities in the capital, are on a 10-year loan from the China Wildlife Conservation Association. In exchange, the zoo is paying $10 million to Chinese conservation projects.

The zoo's previous panda pair - Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing - arrived in 1972 as a symbol of U.S.-China detente and quickly transcended politics to become the most beloved attraction at the zoo.

There are as few as 1,600 giant pandas in the mountain forests of central China, according to the zoo. An additional 120 are in Chinese breeding facilities and zoos, and about 20 live in zoos outside China.

Pandas are threatened by loss of habitat, poaching and a low reproduction rate. Females in the wild normally have a cub once every two years to three years.

Hsing-Hsing and his female partner, Ling-Ling, were a gift from the Chinese government just two months after President Nixon made his historic visit to Beijing that reopened U.S.-China contacts.

Ling-Ling died in 1992 and Hsing-Hsing in 1999.

The panda's birth was welcome news for the zoo, where about two dozen animals have died in the past few years.

The embattled director announced her resignation in February 2004 after the release of a report critical of care at the zoo. A National Academy of Sciences panel of veterinarians, zookeepers and others began investigating the zoo in 2003 after several well-publicized animal deaths. For example, two red pandas died after eating rat poison buried in their yard by exterminators trying to get rid of rodents.

Panda Timeline

A look at giant pandas and their reproductive history at the National Zoo in Washington:

-- 1972: Hsing-Hsing and his female mate, Ling-Ling, arrive as a gift from the Chinese government following President Nixon's trip to Beijing. They did not mate until 1983.

-- 1992: Years of fruitless attempts to breed the pair end with the sudden death of the female, Ling-Ling, 23. She had given birth five times, but none of the cubs lived.

-- 1999: Hsing-Hsing, 28, suffering from several diseases, was put to death.

-- 2000: Mei Xiang, 2, and Tian Tian, 3, arrive on loan for 10 years from China for $10 million. The fee is paid for by donors, including Fujifilm and Animal Planet. Also that year, Hua Mei becomes the nation's first giant panda born by artificial insemination, in San Diego.

-- 2003: Mei Ziang and Tian Tian mated, but no pregnancy developed.

-- 2004: Mei Ziang artificially inseminated. No pregnancy developed.

-- March 11, 2005: Mei Ziang artificially inseminated.

-- July 9, 2005: A panda cub weighing only a few ounces is born at 3:41 a.m. EDT.


On the Net:

National Zoo's giant pandas: http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/GiantPandas/