WASHINGTON (AP) — The “cake” was made of frozen fruit juice, sweet potatoes, carrots and candy cane and it lasted about 15 minutes once giant panda mom Mei Xiang and her baby Xiao Qi Ji grabbed it.
The National Zoo’s most famous tenants had a rousing breakfast on Saturday in front of a cheering crowd as the zoo celebrated 50 years of its iconic panda swap deal with the Chinese government.
Xiao Qi Ji’s father, Tian Tian, was largely absent from the morning festivities, munching on bamboo in a nearby compound with the sounds of his bites clearly audible during a statement from Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang. The ambassador hailed the bears as “a symbol of friendship” between nations.
Pandas are almost entirely solitary by nature, and in the wild Tian Tian would probably never even meet his child. He received a similar cake for lunch.
As well as hailing the 1972 accord sparked by President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, Saturday’s celebration also highlighted the success of the global giant panda breeding program, which has helped bring bears back from the brink of extinction.
Xiao Qi Ji’s birth in August 2020 was hailed as a near-miracle, due to Mei Xiang’s advanced age and the fact that zoo staff performed the artificial insemination procedure under strict restrictions shortly after. time after the entire zoo was closed by the COVID-19 pandemic. At 22, Mei Xiang was the oldest giant panda to successfully give birth in the United States.
Normally, they would have used a combination of frozen semen and fresh semen extracted from Tian Tian. But in order to minimize the number of close medical procedures, zoo officials used only frozen semen.
“It was definitely a long-term pregnancy,” said Bryan Amaral, the zoo’s senior curator for mammals.
In honor of the long shot, the now 20-month-old little one has been given a name that translates to “little miracle.” His birth amid the pandemic sparked a new wave of panda-mania, with viewership on the zoo’s panda-cam live stream soaring 1,200%.
“I know how passionate people are about pandas,” Amaral said. “I am not at all surprised by this passion.”
Sure enough, crowds started streaming directly to the panda section at 8 a.m. when the zoo opened. Sisters Lorelai and Everley Greenwell, ages 6 and 5, ran towards the compound chanting “Pandas! Panda!”
They watched as the little one tumbled, trying to wrestle his mother and snatch the zero from the giant 50 sporting the ice cream cake.
“They knew this was coming,” their mother Kayleigh Greenwell of Mount Ranier, Maryland, said of her daughters. “We talked about it all week.
The zoo’s original pair of pandas from 1972, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, were star attractions at the zoo for decades, but panda pregnancies are notoriously tricky and none of their cubs survived.
Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived in 2000, and the couple successfully delivered three more cubs: Tai Shan, Bao Bao and Bei Bei, also through artificial insemination. All were transported to China when they were 4 years old, in accordance with the zoo’s agreement with the Chinese government.
Similar deals with zoos around the world have helped revitalize the giant panda population. Dwindling to just over 1,000 bears in the 1980s, the species has since been removed from endangered animal lists.
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