Published: 09:01, November 24, 2020 | Updated: 10:25, June 5, 2023
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'Little Miracle': US public names giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji
By Zhao Huanxin in Washington

This undated photo taken in November 2020 shows the giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C. (SMITHSONIAN'S NATIONAL ZOO / HANDOUT VIA XINHUA)

Americans are celebrating their newest giant panda cub by formally giving him a name, Xiao Qi Ji, which translates into English as "little miracle", on Monday, but they face a somber reality: The loan agreement for the newborn's parents, who came to the National Zoo 20 years ago, will expire on Dec 7.

"It is our hope that we will have these pandas for just a few more years," Steven Monfort, director of the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, told China Daily on Sunday.

"And then in the future, after they go to China, in the long run, we'd very much like to keep this relationship going, and maybe that means another agreement with a different set of pandas," he said.

The name reflects the extraordinary circumstances under which he was born and celebrates the collaboration between colleagues who strive to conserve this species, according to the Smithsonian's National Zoo

Right now, the only thing the National Zoo has requested is an extension for Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the current pair, instead of asking for any new pandas, according to Monfort.

ALSO READ: 'Pure joy': Giant panda gives birth to healthy cub at US national zoo

He went to Beijing for talks about the loan in January, right before the COVID-19 pandemic stopped travel, and said he is now waiting for "our Chinese colleagues to give a final answer".

The Giant Panda Cooperative Research and Breeding Agreement, signed between the National Zoo and the China Wildlife Conservation Association, has been renewed twice since the first 10-year loan expired in 2010.

The deal, which was last extended in 2015, ends in early December.

The veteran conservation biologist said that the birth of the cub sparked great joy during the pandemic.

The zoo has asked Americans to select from possible names chosen by the zoo and its partners in China. After five days of voting and just under 135,000 votes, the winning Chinese name was Xiao Qi Ji.

The name reflects the extraordinary circumstances under which he was born and celebrates the collaboration between colleagues who strive to conserve this species, according to the zoo.

READ MORE: US zoo calls panda Mei Xiang 'excellent & attentive mother'

Xiao Qi Ji, born to 22-year-old Mei Xiang on Aug 21, is the fourth surviving cub born at the National Zoo in the more than four decades since the first pair, Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing, arrived in April 1972, weeks after then-US president Richard Nixon's historic China visit.

A photo of giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji posted by the Smithsonian's National Zoo on its official website on Sept 21, 2020. (PHOTO / SMITHSONIAN's NATIONAL ZOO VIA XINHUA)

Over the next 20 years, that couple produced five cubs, but none survived more than a few days.

The arrival of a new couple, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, in 2000 changed the situation. Between 2005 and this year, Mei Xiang has given birth to four surviving cubs.

"When the cub was born, everyone had been suffering for so many months," Monfort said. "This is just a time when we think about something very joyful and happy to forget about all the troubles for just even a few minutes every day."

It is our hope that we will have these pandas for just a few more years.

Steven Monfort, Director of the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, US

At least 1.5 million people have watched the zoo's Giant Panda Cam since the cub was born. The panda zone has been closed since March due to the pandemic, making the 24/7 web camera the only way people can see the cub and his parents.

READ MORE: Paws crossed for panda birth at Smithsonian zoo

Monfort also said the partnership between the zoo and China on the pandas is an example that "great things" happen if people work together.

"The National Zoo and the Smithsonian and its relationship with China on the panda is one of the longest collaborative partnerships and conservation that's ever existed," Monfort said. "As a result of that, great things have happened."

He said the Chinese government has done a "fantastic" job of setting aside reserves and protecting the pandas, and the US side has been helping by adding additional knowledge and technical expertise.

"Clearly, we support what the Chinese government is trying to do," he said. "We don't own the pandas, but the whole world wants to help save the panda, and we do that through our knowledge exchange."

Giant panda Mei Xiang, who gave birth to a cub three months ago, chomps on sugar cane at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington on Nov 22, 2020. (ZHAO HUANXIN / CHINA DAILY)

Monfort said the pandemic has disrupted the exchange of zoo researchers between China and the US, but they were in "close correspondence".

READ MORE: Bei Bei's farewell party epitomizes China-US friendship

During the pandemic, some people have expressed their concerns about the nutrition of Mei Xiang after her delivery and the "extremely narrow space" of the den where she gave birth.

For example, an article complaining about panda "mistreatment", which was posted on the Chinese news portal NetEase on Oct 30, had generated nearly 10,000 comments by Sunday.

Monfort said, "We invest very, very heavily in making sure that every single animal that we care for, but especially the panda, is taken care of at the highest level of excellence."

Marty Dearie, who has been taking care of pandas over the past 11 years, said a panda usually does not eat much in the first couple of weeks, up to a month, to focus on the cub. He and his colleagues offered bamboo, sugar cane and some treats to Mei Xiang to make her happy when they entered the enclosure to check on the cub.