The "cake" was made from frozen fruit juice, sweet potatoes, carrots, and sugar cane, and it lasted about 15 minutes once giant panda mama Mei Xiang and her cub Xiao Qi Ji got hold of it. The National Zoo's most famous tenants had an enthusiastic breakfast Saturday in front of adoring crowds as the zoo celebrated 50 years of its iconic panda exchange agreement with the Chinese government. Xiao Qi Ji’s father Tian Tian largely sat out the morning festivities, munching bamboo in a neighboring enclosure as Chinese ambassador Qin Gang praised the bears as "a symbol of the friendship" between the nations. In addition to hailing the 1972 agreement sparked by President Nixon's landmark visit to China, Saturday's celebration also highlighted the success of the global giant panda breeding program.
The zoo's original 1972 panda pair, 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 pair has successfully birthed three other cubs: Tai Shan, Bao Bao, and Bei Bei—by artificial insemination. All were transported to China at age 4, under terms of the zoo’s agreement with the Chinese government. Similar agreements with zoos around the world have helped revitalize the giant panda population. Down to just over 1,000 bears in the 1980s, the species has since been removed from the lists of animals in danger of extinction, reports the AP.
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 tight restrictions shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic shut the entire zoo. At age 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 sperm and fresh semen extracted from Tian Tian. But in order to minimize the number of close-quarters medical procedures, zoo officials used only frozen semen. Xiao Qi Ji's name translates as "little miracle." (Researchers have figured out why pandas like horse manure.)