A panda brought all the way from China delivered one of the most precious gifts to Pairi Daiza wildlife park in Belgium – a newborn cub. Cameras captured the birth on film, as well as the keepers’ tears when they saw the tiny pink cub writhing and crying.
The plight of the panda has been on the radar of conservationists and animal lovers for more than half a century. The species was at risk of extinction – in 2016, the same year the Belgian zoo had its cub, there were only 1,864 giant pandas in the world. They had lost much of their natural habitat to human impingement.
Of those 1,864 bears, 300 lived in zoos. But that type of protection didn’t automatically help the species to grow and repopulate, since pandas have always been hesitant to reproduce while in captivity.
Fortunately, advancements in artificial breeding methodology, as well as greater familiarity with the needs of the species, helped zoologists to slightly lift the number of births for pandas in zoos. And that was exactly what happened at Pairi Daiza in 2016.
The Belgian zoo had previously welcomed two pandas on loan from China in 2014: Hao Hao, a six-year-old female, and her mate Xing Hui. Pairi Daiza enlisted the help of experts from the local area and from China to artificially inseminate Hao Hao a couple of years after she arrived.
Afterward, Hao Hao began exhibiting signs that she was, indeed, pregnant. According to a statement from Pairi Daiza’s Tania Stroobant, the panda was “eating double her daily portion of bamboo. Then her interest in food fell dramatically, and she refused to leave her cave.”
“The results of scientific tests confirm our observations,” Stroobant’s statement continued, although not without a dose of reality. “We should at this stage remain cautious. It is still possible that Hao Hao is experiencing a phantom pregnancy or that she loses the fetus,” Stroobant said.
But on June 6, 2016, Hao Hao proved that her pregnancy was, indeed, a real one. In the early hours of the morning, she gave birth to a cub, which arrived tiny, pink, hairless and blind.
As soon as she delivered her baby, Hao Hao did something that appeared out of the ordinary. She used her teeth to pick up the cub, which had been wriggling on the floor, and held it in her mouth. The panda’s zookeepers cried as they watched.
The baby panda let out cries of its own, too – but none of the tears in the room were sad ones. Pairi Daiza’s staff wept because couldn’t believe their hard work had paid off. And the baby’s squeals were just a sign of life in the young cub, whose mom cleaned and protected it by holding it in her mouth.
Shortly after the birth, Pairi Daiza’s director, Eric Domb, told the world the good news at a press conference. “It’s a boy,” he announced. On top of that, “Everything went exceptionally well,” he said.
Pairi Daiza’s zoological director Tim Bouts described the six-ounce baby as a “little pink sausage,” according to the BBC. All panda cubs are born temporarily hairless and blind though, which means they need constant attention from their mothers to survive.
Fortunately, the newborn panda had the zoo staff to look after it too. It would need as much help as it could get, since many cubs struggle to survive, even in captivity. “We are still in a risky period,” Bouts said to the Daily Mail after the baby’s successful delivery.
So the zoo’s staff waited to name the baby and watched as he slowly grew up. They released a video when he celebrated his one-month birthday. In it, the once-hairless cub had wispy black and white fur growing, and he weighed just under 2.5 pounds.
By August of 2016, Baby P., as he was called until he received his official name, weighed in at 11 pounds. At that time, the nearly three-month-old attempted to take his first steps, and cameras caught his adorably wobbly crawl.
On September 15, the zookeepers were finally ready to give Baby P. an official name. They enlisted the help of the public, creating an online survey with five potential names including Xing Hao, which means “Good Star” in Chinese; Ou Xing, “Star of Europe”; Hua Li, “China and Belgium”; and An Tuan, “United Peace.”
But the public put 40 percent of their votes behind “Tian Bao,” which means Treasure of Heaven, and the zookeepers agreed. The Chinese Ambassador to Belgium and the Belgian Environment Minister both attended the panda’s naming ceremony.
When he reached his first birthday in June of 2017, Tian Bao received a very special gift – a new swing set. The young bear would undoubtedly love the new toy, as would the many visitors who flocked to Pairi Daiza to see the baby panda.
Eventually, though, life will see Tian Bao back in China. As part of his parents’ loan agreement, which will keep them in Belgium until 2029, he can only stay there until he’s four years old. After that, he will return to the panda’s native land to join its breeding program or reintegrate into the wild.
Efforts such as the one made at Pairi Daiza have certainly had a great impact on the giant panda’s population and prospects, too. In September of 2016, the species dropped from endangered to vulnerable, as the population swelled to more than 2,000 bears.