Panda cub at National Zoo begins process of getting his own place

Just like a human toddler, the giant panda cub at the National Zoo is reaching his milestones.

The latest: preparing to one day have his own place.

Xiao Qi Ji, now 2 years old, has begun visiting a new habitat area at the Northwest Washington zoo where he could someday live on his own, zookeepers said. He has been living with his mother, Mei Xiang, in an enclosure in one part of the panda area; his father, Tian Tian, lives in another nearby. Pandas eventually live solitary lives, experts noted, and so it was time for Xiao Qi Ji to venture out.

Xiao Qi Ji is coming “of the age to ‘move’ away from his mother and go live on his own,” Pamela Baker-Masson, a spokeswoman for the zoo, wrote in an email. “He will transition to the new yard,” Baker-Masson said, and keepers will watch the pandas for “cues as to when the ‘separation’ has taken place.”

Xiao Qi Ji went into the new area with his mother and showed “no hesitation” in exploring the space, keepers at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute said in a statement last week.

Keepers watched Xiao Qi Ji’s behavior closely to make sure he wasn’t intimidated and still ate, slept and played comfortably. The young panda left his scent, ran, climbed trees, and checked out the waterfalls, views and new smells.

His mother sat happily nearby, munching on bamboo. Sometimes, Xiao Qi Ji stopped exploring and ate near his mother. Other times, he rested close to her as she ate, or the two played together. Xiao Qi Ji also figured out that he can “interact with his keepers through the glass when they are on their way” to the nearby red panda exhibit, zookeepers said.

Xiao Qi Ji was born in August 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, becoming the first giant panda cub in five years at the D.C. zoo. At the time of his birth, mom Mei Xiang was 22 years old, making her the oldest giant panda to give birth in the United States.

Mei Xiang had previously had pregnancy issues, including five false pregnancies during a five-year period after giving birth in 2005. In 2012, she was artificially inseminated after unsuccessful natural breeding with Tian Tian and became the first giant panda in the country to give birth after the use of frozen semen, experts said. But that 2012 cub died six days later.

Xiao Qi Ji’s name, Mandarin Chinese for “little miracle,” was chosen in a public naming contest several months after his 2020 birth. The name reflects the “extraordinary circumstances under which he was born” and celebrated “the collaboration between colleagues who strive to conserve this species,” zoo officials said at the time.

China owns and leases all giant pandas in U.S. zoos.

Pandas have long had a big following at the National Zoo, which this year celebrated the 50-year anniversary of the arrival of its first giant pandas. All three of its current giant pandas – Xiao Qi Ji, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian – are set to go to China at the end of 2023.

One of Mei Xiang’s cubs, the wildly popular Tai Shan, was flown to China in 2010, as part of a breeding program. Another, Bei Bei, departed in 2019.

As Xiao Qi Ji becomes more acclimated to his new area, keepers said, the zoo will have more flexibility to move all three pandas around.

Keepers said they expect it will take more time in the new space before Xiao Qi Ji finds his favorite spot to hang out in, as giant pandas usually do. For now, experts said Xiao Qi Ji is showing all the normal behaviors of enjoying his new space as he wanders independently from his indoor space to his new outdoor area.

Still, zookeepers said they have no plans to separate Xiao Qi Ji from his mom immediately. In the wild and in zoos, most panda cubs are weaned between 18 months and 2 years of age.