Introducing Bei Bei, a 4-month-old panda making its world debut

Agence France-Presse
Giant Panda cub Bei Bei is shown to the media by Juan Rodriguez at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington Dec. 16. Bei Bei is four months old and weighs 17 pounds. 
Gary Cameron

A black-and-white fur ball known as Bei Bei the giant panda made its media debut Wednesday as the new star of Washington zoo, a month before stepping out to meet thousands of impatient fans.

Throngs of admirers watched live via "Panda Cam" as the tiny cub was born on August 22 -- pink, hairless and blind.

Bei Bei has already been fussed over by two first ladies -- Michelle Obama and her Chinese counterpart Peng Liyuan -- during a state visit to Washington in September.

Now, having grown to a roly-poly 17.5 pounds (eight kilograms), the four-month-old cub will have a chance to expand his circle of acquaintances beyond his nurturing mother and ever-attentive zoo handlers.

Bei Bei.

Beginning January 16, adoring fans will be able to press their noses to the windows of the zoo's sound-proof giant panda enclosure, which has been closed to the public since Bei Bei's birth.

"We're ready. We know that thousands of people will want to come and see Bei Bei," said Brandie Smith, an associate director of the Smithsonian National Zoo.

Keepers at the sprawling zoo in the heart of the US capital -- where admission is free -- have been preparing the animal gradually for his introduction to the public stage.

"We are getting sort of smaller groups coming to the building to get him used to hearing the noise," said Juan Rodriguez, one of his handlers.

These include zoo employees and the dozens of journalists invited Wednesday to Bei Bei's "media debut," as Rodriguez explained.

This square-shouldered former zoo volunteer cuddles the panda as gently as if he were a human baby.

"I'm being really, really cautious, you know," he said with a smile. "It is an endangered species."

Compared to his older sister Bao Bao, born in 2013, Bei Bei is "very vocal (and) a little demanding," Rodriguez said. "He definitely has a different personality."

- President Nixon and 'panda diplomacy'-

If the infatuation for Bei Bei has been fueled by his presence online -- a camera tracks his every movement around-the-clock -- it is also built on the prestige of his famous predecessors.

"Washington is really associated with the giant pandas, because in the 1970s President Richard Nixon went to China, and two pandas were given as a gift in the US, and at that time there were no pandas in the US," said Brandie Smith, the deputy zoo director.

That was the start of an ongoing round of "panda diplomacy," leading to the visit by Peng Liyuan, who personally announced the cub's name.

Like Bao Bao and their older sibling Tai Shuan, Bei Bei will be handed over to China at age four. (Bei Bei's twin brother died shortly after birth.)

Their parents, Mei Xian and Tian Tian, are on loan from China and will remain in Washington at least until 2020 under a recently renewed agreement. Under that accord, the zoo pays $500,000 a year to support conservation efforts in China.

- Talented mother, clumsy father -

The reproduction of giant pandas is a high-stakes affair; fewer than 2,000 survive in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Bei Bei's mother was artificially inseminated, a delicate process since a female panda is fertile only once a year, usually for no more than two days.

Other zoos have successfully bred pandas in captivity, but Bei Bei's father proved a little clumsy.

Still, zoo officials are delighted with the two live births in three years. Mei Xian has proved to have excellent maternal instincts, says the zoo, which hopes for more babies in the years ahead.