WASHINGTON – The most popular giant panda in U.S.-China relations finally was given an identity Sunday as the Smithsonian's National Zoo named its female 100-day-old cub Bao Bao after receiving more than 123,000 votes online from the public.
Bao Bao, which means "treasure" or "precious," is only the second surviving cub born at the National Zoo since the first pandas arrived in 1972 to commemorate President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China. Pandas have remained a happy symbol of diplomacy between the two countries.
Panda mother Mei Xiang has been caring for her cub in the panda den since she was born Aug. 23. Bao Bao will have her public unveiling early in 2014. Panda keepers, however, said Mei Xiang has indicated she may want to take Bao Bao outside soon. Before she goes outside, veterinarians want to give Bao Bao her final set of vaccinations this week, so mother and cub could venture out as soon as the second week of December, said curator Brandie Smith.
Mei Xiang's only other surviving cub, a male named Tai Shan, was born in 2005 and was returned to China in 2010 for breeding. Male panda Tian Tian is the father of both cubs.
The zoo asked the public to vote for one of five names for the new cub. The others were Ling Hua, Long Yun, Mulan and Zhen Bao. The names were submitted by Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai, U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, panda keepers at the National Zoo, the fundraising group Friends of the National Zoo and the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda.
The chosen name was submitted by Friends of the National Zoo.
In a videotaped message played at the zoo Sunday, first lady Michelle Obama said it was first lady Pat Nixon who helped "jump-start panda diplomacy" after admiring the bears during the Nixons' visit to China in 1972.
"After decades of close collaboration with our Chinese partners, these remarkable animals stand as a symbol of the growing connections between our two countries," Obama said.
Peng Liyuan, the first lady of China, also sent a video message, saying giant pandas are China's "national treasure."
"Many people love baby pandas as they love their own children," she said in Mandarin.
Dozens of people and reporters gathered for the naming ceremony Sunday, 100 days after the cub's birth following Chinese tradition. Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai said it's a unique celebration.
"It represents the wish that the baby will grow up in happiness and good health and that it will live as long as over 100 years," he said.
Giant pandas are considered critically endangered in the wild, and breeding them in captivity has proved difficult, especially in Washington. Zoo scientists have made numerous attempts to artificially inseminate its female panda because the pair failed to breed naturally.
The new birth has given zoo scientists renewed confidence in the Washington pandas' ability to help grow the panda species.
Last year, Mei Xiang gave birth to a cub, but it died after six days because its lungs hadn't fully developed and weren't sending enough oxygen to its liver. The zoo's first panda couple, Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing, had five cubs during the 1980s, though none lived more than a few days.
A live online camera view of Bao Bao revealed she is starting to scoot around, though she can't yet raise her hind legs to crawl, curators said. Overnight she also started mouthing bamboo as her teeth are about to come in.
"She can scoot over to the opening of her den, and she kind of peeks out, but she hasn't gotten over the threshold yet," Smith said. "We let Mei Xiang take her cub where she needs to take it. Mei Xiang is definitely becoming more adventurous with her, and Mei has given us some indication she's ready to start taking her cub outside as soon as we let her."