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Panda born in US called 'little miracle'

By ZHAO HUANXIN in Washington | China Daily | Updated: 2020-11-24 09:14
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This handout photo released by the Smithsonian's National Zoo shows a panda cub named Xiao Qi Ji in Washington. More than three months after his birth, the National Zoo's new panda cub finally has a name. Officials at the Smithsonian, which runs the zoo, announced on Monday that the cub born on Aug 21 would be named Xiao Qi Ji, which is Mandarin Chinese for "little miracle." Smithsonian's National Zoo via AP

Americans celebrated their newest giant panda cub Monday by formally giving him a name, Xiao Qi Ji, which translates into English as "little miracle", but they face a somber reality: The loan agreement for the newborn's parents, who came to the National Zoo 20 years ago, will expire on Dec 7.

"It is our hope that we will have these pandas for just a few more years," Steven Monfort, director of the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, told China Daily on Sunday.

"And then in the future, after they go to China, in the long run, we'd very much like to keep this relationship going, and maybe that means another agreement with a different set of pandas," he said.

Right now, the only thing the National Zoo has requested is an extension for Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the current pair, instead of asking for any new pandas, according to Monfort.

He went to Beijing for talks about the loan in January, right before the COVID-19 pandemic halted travel, and said he is now waiting for "our Chinese colleagues to give a final answer".

The Giant Panda Cooperative Research and Breeding Agreement, signed between the National Zoo and the China Wildlife Conservation Association, has been renewed twice since the first 10-year loan expired in 2010.

The deal, which was last extended in 2015, ends in early December.

The veteran conservation biologist said that the birth of the cub sparked great joy during the pandemic.

The zoo had asked Americans to select from possible names chosen by the zoo and its partners in China. After five days of voting and just under 135,000 votes, the winning Chinese name was Xiao Qi Ji.

The name reflects the extraordinary circumstances under which he was born and celebrates the collaboration between colleagues who strive to conserve this species, according to the zoo.

"Xiao Qi Ji's birth is a true miracle that has been so uplifting to all of us during the pandemic," Chinese Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai said in a video congratulatory message.

"We are connected again in the growth of our little ambassador, and in our shared joy and friendship," he said.

Xiao Qi Ji, born to 22-year-old Mei Xiang on Aug 21, is the fourth surviving cub born at the National Zoo in the more than four decades since the first pair, Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing, arrived in April 1972, weeks after then-US president Richard Nixon's historic China visit.

Over the next 20 years, that couple produced five cubs, but none survived more than a few days.

The arrival of a new couple, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, in 2000 brought good luck. Between 2005 and this year, Mei Xiang has given birth to four surviving cubs.

"When the cub was born, everyone had been suffering for so many months," Monfort said. "This is just a time when we think about something very joyful and happy to forget about all the troubles for just even a few minutes every day."

At least 1.5 million people have watched the zoo's Giant Panda Cam since the cub was born. The zoo's panda zone has been closed since March due to the pandemic, making the 24/7 web camera the only way people can see the cub and his parents.

Monfort also said the partnership between the zoo and China on the pandas is an example that "great things" happen if people work together.

"The National Zoo and the Smithsonian and its relationship with China on the panda is one of the longest collaborative partnerships and conservation that's ever existed," Monfort said. "As a result of that, great things have happened."

He said the Chinese government has done a "fantastic" job of setting aside reserves and protecting the pandas, and the US side has been helping by adding additional knowledge and technical expertise.

"Clearly, we support what the Chinese government is trying to do," he said. "We don't own the pandas, but the whole world wants to help save the panda, and we do that through our knowledge exchange."

Monfort said the pandemic has disrupted the exchange of zoo researchers between China and the US, but they were in "close correspondence".

During the pandemic, some people have expressed concern about the nutrition of Mei Xiang after her delivery and the "extremely narrow space" of the den where she gave birth.

For example, an article alleging panda "mistreatment", which was posted on the Chinese news portal NetEase on Oct 30, had generated nearly 10,000 comments by Sunday.

Monfort said, "We invest very, very heavily in making sure that every single animal that we care for, but especially the panda, is taken care of at the highest level of excellence."

When it comes to the den size, Monfort said that when she gives birth, just like in the wild, a panda will seek out a smaller, comfortable, safe space. The den is something that Mei Xiang chose herself, as the panda has access to anywhere she wants to go, he added.

Marty Dearie, who has been taking care of pandas over the past 11 years, said a panda usually does not eat much in the first couple of weeks, up to a month, to focus on the cub. He and his colleagues offered bamboo, sugar cane and some treats to Mei Xiang to make her happy when they entered the enclosure to check on the cub.

"We have about 30 to 40 sites all around the region that our nutrition team goes and cuts bamboo from, and then all the produce and biscuits and things, none of those ever stopped during the pandemic," Dearie said.

"Both the cub and Mei Xiang are continuing to gain weight. They're both doing fantastic, and we couldn't be happier," he told China Daily.

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