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Newly named panda cub is still online as National Zoo closes doors

The cub brightened up a difficult year for zookeepers

Nov. 18, 2020: The Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s giant panda cub received a clean bill of health from Zoo veterinarians during his third veterinary exam. They listened to his heart and lungs, checked his eyes and mouth, and tested the range of motion in his limbs. The cub also received his second canine distemper vaccine.
Image: National Zoo

The National Zoo and other Smithsonian institutions closed their doors to visitors again today because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the zoo’s webcams are still live, including the Giant Panda Cam, which will keep broadcasting adorable footage of the institution’s newly named baby panda during the latest shutdown.

The National Zoo just announced the panda’s name today: Xiao Qi Ji (SHIAU-chi-ji), which is Mandarin for “little miracle.” The zoo left the naming up to voters, who cast almost 135,000 votes online last week for their favorite moniker. Xiao Qi Ji beat out four other options, including Xing Fu (my personal favorite, which translates to “happy and prosperous”) and Zai Zai (a Chinese nickname for a boy).

Xiao Qi Ji’s birth on August 21st was a small miracle, given all the tumult this year — and giant pandas’ already precarious situation in the wild. Scientists think there are less than 1,900 giant pandas left in the wild. The creatures are considered “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Their strict diet of almost nothing but bamboo makes threats, like human development and climate change, to the bamboo forests they call home especially menacing to the bears.

It’s also really difficult to breed giant pandas. Xiao Qi Ji’s mom was artificially inseminated. When the zoo first spotted fetal tissue on an ultrasound in August, it said there was still a “substantial possibility” that the mama bear would miscarry or resorb the fetus (a phenomenon scientists still don’t understand).

After five days of voting and just under 135,000 votes, the panda cub at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo is named Xiao Qi Ji (SHIAU-chi-ji), which translates as “little miracle” in English.
After five days of voting and just under 135,000 votes, the panda cub at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo is named Xiao Qi Ji (SHIAU-chi-ji), which translates as “little miracle” in English.
Image: National Zoo

The good news is that thanks to conservation efforts, giant pandas were taken off the IUCN’s list of endangered species in 2016. The species has become a sort of symbol for hope for conservationists since then. The National Zoo calls the population of giant pandas in zoos “an insurance policy against extinction.” The zoo has a long-standing agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association that lets it breed the pandas with the condition that cubs born in the US are sent back to China after four years. The current agreement expires at the end of this year.

Xiao Qi Ji has brought some hope and happiness to the zoo during a difficult year. The Smithsonian’s museums and zoo shuttered in March as a precaution during the pandemic, but reopened by September. The institutions are now closing again amid a nationwide surge in coronavirus infections, and they haven’t yet set a date for reopening.

“Like many who have followed our giant panda cub since his birth last summer, I tune into the Giant Panda Cam from time to time. Watching Xiao Qi Ji always puts a smile on my face,” Steve Monfort, a director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, said in a statement today. “While we’re closed, I encourage you to watch our giant panda cub thrive on the Giant Panda Cam. He’s such a source of joy!”