San Diego Zoo panda Bai Yun celebrates 22nd birthday

SAN DIEGO - The San Diego Zoo on Saturday celebrated the 22nd birthday of giant panda Bai Yun, the mother of six panda cubs.

Bai Yun was presented a five-foot-tall, 215-pound ice cake right before the park opened to the public. Zoo officials said the cake -- which took four weeks to create -- is made of ice, bamboo, fruit and icing of pureed yam.

"Bai Yun is one special bear and deserves a special celebration," Senior Keeper Kathy Hawk said. "I remember her arrival at the zoo when she was a 5-year-old full of wonder and energy."

The panda's latest offspring, 1-year-old Xiao Liwu, took part in the event, nibbling at bamboo decorations and attempting to sneak some of his mother's apple slices, zoo officials said. Bai Yun was nearly 21 years old when

"Mr. Wu" was born, making her the oldest giant panda known to give birth.

"She is an amazing ambassador for her species and has grown to be a wonderful mother who is playful and highly intelligent," Hawk said. "Miss Bai continues to delight our guests, and her keepers, on a daily basis."

The zoo frequently conducts "enrichment" activities to keep the animals stimulated and so they can display their natural behaviors.

The giant pandas at the zoo are on loan from the Chinese government, which has the option of calling them back to their native country after they reach age 3.

The zoo is one of four in the United States 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.

Only about 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.

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