SAN DIEGO -
Giant panda cub Xiao Liwu on Wednesday showed some of the spirit that led San Diego Zoo officials to decide to put him on public display, ambling outside ahead of his mother for the first time and exploring his exhibit.
Barbara Michels was in a group of about 50 media members and volunteers who got the first glimpse of him. She has volunteered at the zoo about three days a week for three years.
“When he walked through that little door and just came out, it’s like, he’s really real," Michels said. "He doesn’t seem real when you just see him on the web cam.”
Until now, you could only watch him on the zoo’s webcam since his birth this summer. It’s been a huge hit with thousands of online visitors a day.
A section of the exhibit frequented by the 5-month-old bear will be opened to the public on Thursday. Since his July 29 birth, the cub has been visible to the public only via the zoo's Panda Cam and on occasional videos produced during his veterinary exams.
This type of bear is about the size of a stick of butter at birth and can reach 300 pounds once mature. Right now, Xiao Liwu is still just 15 pounds.
His area of the exhibit will be open to zoo visitors from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. daily. However, zoo officials warn that his mother, Bai Yun, is a little protective so viewing opportunities might be short or intermittent.
At a preview for the media, Xiao Liwu strode outside ahead of Bai Yun for the first time, explored the exhibit, nibbled on some vegetation and even took a bit of a tumble.
Senior animal keeper Cathy Hawk told reporters that Xiao Liwu is developing his own personality and takes things in stride.
"I think the birth of a cub, be it in China or here in the United States, is a very special moment because it's such a rare event," Hawk told 10News. "I think with each cub born, it brings hope and raises awareness of the giant panda."
The name of the cub, the sixth offspring of Bai Yun, translates in English to "Little Gift."
The giant pandas at the zoo are on loan from the Chinese government, which has the option of calling the black-and-white bears back to their native country after they reach age 3. Only the newest cub and Yun Zi, who turned 3 in August, remain at the San Diego Zoo among Bai Yun's six offspring.
The local zoo is one of four in the U.S. that participate in the loan program. For a hefty fee to China, the zoos get to study the critically endangered species up close and help with breeding. At the same time, the pandas make for highly popular attractions.
Zoo officials told 10News the program started as a 12 year loan in 1996, and they have since renewed the agreement. The loan is set to expire this year, but they tell us they do plan to extend the program once again.
Michels has come to love having the pandas in San Diego. It’s exciting," Michels said. "It really is. I’ve been following this little guy since the day he was born."
Only around 1,600 pandas are believed to be left in the wild in China, in part because of deforestation and the expansion of farming. The bamboo-eating panda has lost much of its forest habitat in the mountainous areas of southwest China to roads and railroads, according to the nonprofit World Wildlife Fund.
Click Here to view the San Diego Zoo's Panda Cam