Video: Surprise panda born at zoo

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updated 5/28/2009 9:53:50 AM ET 2009-05-28T13:53:50

A day-old panda cub whose birth surprised Thai zoo officials is a healthy female that appears to be bonding well with its much larger mother, Chinese experts concluded Thursday.

Officials at the Chiang Mai Zoo in northern Thailand had tried unsuccessfully for years to breed the rare mammal and did not know the mother was pregnant. Thailand joins the United States and Japan as the only countries outside of China to breed a panda in captivity.

"The panda experts from China said the baby is in good health and strong," said Sophon Damnui, director of the Zoological Park Organization, which oversees all zoos in Thailand. "She cries very loudly and she breast-feeds from her mother very well."

The birth was featured on the front pages of many Thai newspapers, which carried photos of the pinkish cub so tiny that it could be held in the hands of a zoo staffer. Others pictures showed the hulking mother Lin Hui gently holding her baby.

Zoo officials had resorted to sometimes-comical strategies to get its two pandas on loan from China to mate over the past six years. They held a mock wedding for the pair, separated them to spark a little romance and then put the male, Chuang Chuang, on a diet to entice Lin Hui.

When that didn't work, they started showing Chuang Chuang "porn" videos of pandas mating, and finally turned to artificial insemination.

Zoo staff artificially inseminated the 7-year-old Lin Hui on Feb. 18, Chiang Mai Zoo director Thananpat Pongamorn said.

Staff had been monitoring her hormone levels in recent weeks and noticed they were rising. But an ultrasound image on May 11 was not clear and they couldn't make out a fetus. Panda births are difficult to predict and reports of false pregnancies are common.

Zoo babies"She's been anxious since yesterday. She did not want to get close to caretakers or any other people, but we didn't know what the problem was," Thananpat told The Associated Press late Wednesday.

Lin Hui started licking her backside and exhibiting pain in her stomach early in the morning and then gave birth to the cub, which immediately began screeching loudly, Thananpat said.

"It is an ultimate happiness to see the baby panda," Thananpat said. "We are so happy that we can breed a panda from artificial insemination. Every staff at the zoo is proud and I think every Thai will be proud too."

Sophon told Channel 3 television Wednesday that Lin Hui was "very fond of her baby."

"She cuddles, licks and holds the baby very carefully all the time," he said. "She knows how to be a mother even though she has never been one before."

Breeding pandas is a common practice in China, where dozens are born by artificial insemination each year. But it is a rare occurrence outside of the country.

Pandas are threatened by loss of habitat, poaching and a low reproduction rate. Females in the wild normally have a cub once every two to three years. The fertility of captive giant pandas is even lower, experts said.

Only about 1,600 pandas live in the wild, mostly in China's southwestern Sichuan province, which was hit by an earthquake last year that killed nearly 70,000 people. An additional 120 are in Chinese breeding facilities and zoos, and about 20 live in zoos outside China.

Suzanne Braden, the director of the Colorado-based conservation group Pandas International, called the cub's birth in Thailand "superb news and important to the preservation of the species."

"With such small numbers, every panda birth is extremely significant — especially after the devastation following the 2008 (earthquake in) Sichuan province," Braden said in an e-mail interview.

More on  Pandas   |  Animal conservation

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