There’s a new arrival at the National Zoo in Washington, DC. Late Sunday night, the zoo’s only female giant panda, Mei Xiang, gave birth to a baby cub.
“We are thrilled that Mei Xiang had a successful pregnancy,” said Dennis Kelly, director at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.
The zoo’s staff is calling the birth a real victory for the giant panda population as a whole. Giant pandas are endangered, there are about 1,600 left in the wild, and they typically make their home in the mountain ranges of central China.
“Just statistically the numbers were very, very low, so this is a pleasant surprise,” said Juan Rodriguez, a caretaker at the zoo.
Since 2007 Mei Xiang, who is 14 years old, has had five pseudo or false pregnancies, and veterinarians estimated the chances of her conceiving a cub was less than 10 percent.
Even with the odds stacked against her, veterinarians were persistent. In April they tried again, artificially inseminating Mei Xiang twice with sperm collected in 2005 and frozen from the zoo’s other giant panda, Tian Tian.
The pair’s last cub, Tai Shan, was born in 2005 and lives in China.
Last month, veterinarians noticed a rise in the levels of progesterone in Mei Xiang’s urine, a sign of pregnancy, but also common during pseudopregnancy as well, caretakers said.
According to the Smithsonian blog, zoo veterinarians performed ultrasounds on Mei Xiang as she would cooperate for them, but those were inconclusive as well.
It wasn’t until Sunday night, when an off duty zoo employee happened to turn on the live feed to the panda’s den, that staffers learned the insemination was a success. Mei Xiang gave birth to a cub just before 11 pm, confirmed only by the sounds emerging from the panda’s den.
“They’re very vocal when they’re young,” said Rodriguez. “We really haven’t gotten the chance to get a good visual yet, just a few glimpses here and there, but we have been hearing the baby.”
For the next week or so, the zoo’s staff will keep their distance, but employees like Rodriguez will be keeping an eye on the pair 24/7 monitoring the duos every move using the high definition panda cam.
Keeping with the Chinese tradition, the zoo’s staff says the cub won’t be named until 100 days after its birth.