Rare Panda cub makes public debut at San Diego Zoo

SAN DIEGO Fri Jan 11, 2013 4:57am EST

Giant Panda cub Xiao Liwi is shown for the first time on public display after the section of the exhibit frequented by the five-month old bear was opened to the public at the San Diego Zoo in San Diego, California, January 10, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Giant Panda cub Xiao Liwi is shown for the first time on public display after the section of the exhibit frequented by the five-month old bear was opened to the public at the San Diego Zoo in San Diego, California, January 10, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Mike Blake

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Xiao Liwu, the newest surviving giant panda born in captivity in the United States, made his public debut on Thursday at the San Diego Zoo by shunning the media but shining for the public.

During an hour-long, pre-opening introduction to the media and zoo volunteers, the 6-month-old, 16-pound male cub rolled in mud and hay, ignoring visitors, then climbed into a moat at the edge of the enclosure and fell asleep on his face.

He woke up once the public arrived and poured on the charm, climbing a tree and posing for photos.

Giant pandas are endangered, and experts estimate there are fewer than 1,600 in the wild, all in the mountain forests of central China.

Xiao Liwu (pronounced zhai lee-woo), which means little gift, was born on July 29 to Bai Yun, the zoo's 21-year-old, 223-pound adult female panda. He is her sixth cub, one of five with mate Gao Gao. Her first cub resulted from artificial insemination.

"He's shy and very loving," said Kay Ferguson, the zoo's panda narrator. "He's inquisitive and he likes to play with balls. He's very different from Bai Yun's other five cubs."

Despite stormy weather and cool temperatures, hundreds of panda fans lined up for the two-hour viewing. Previous glimpses of the cub and its mother were restricted to observations through the zoo's PandaCam.

Bai Yun is one of only two captive pandas worldwide to give birth at age 20, relatively old for pandas. Fewer than a dozen pandas have been born at U.S. zoos, including a female cub that died at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., in September, making Bai Yun the most prolific breeder in captivity outside China.

Bai Yun mostly ignored the baby during the public display. She chomped on bamboo, taking a break only to get a drink of water while the cub played in a nearby tree.

"With the first cub or two, she was very attentive, but the last, she doesn't worry about them at all," said Vivian Kiss, a panda fan. "You just want to pick him up and hold him."

The cub, roughly the size of a stick of butter when first born, is still nursing and does not yet eat solid food, Ferguson said. "She'll nurse him until he's 18 months old, until she gets so grouchy she kicks him out," Ferguson said. (Reporting by Marty Graham; Editing by Steve Gorman)