SD Zoo reveals name of panda cub

About 35K website visitors voted on a name

SAN DIEGO - The 15-week-old giant panda cub at the San Diego Zoo was named Xiao Liwu, or "Little Gift" in English, in a ceremony Tuesday.

The public weighed in via nearly 35,000 votes on the zoo's website, choosing Xiao Liwu over five other names that had made the final cut, according to the zoo. Xiao Liwu received 21.8 percent of the vote, according to the zoo.

The cub was born on July 29 to mother Bai Yun, which means "white cloud," and father Gao Gao, which means "big big." He is Bai Yun's sixth cub and her fifth with Gao Gao. The pair mated in March, zoo officials said.

Ron Swaisgood, with the zoo's giant panda team, said Xiao Liwu was conceived during a violent hailstorm, but has developed a peaceful personality.

"When the veterinarians come to gather him up to do their exams, he's very cooperative," Swaisgood said. "He's a bit on the small side, but he's very healthy, very strong and vibrant."

The naming ceremony at the zoo's Hunte Amphitheater began with a traditional Chinese lion dance and ended with an unveiling of a large poster of Xiao Liwu, with his name captioned on the bottom with English and Chinese lettering.

Qiu Shaofang, the consulate-general of the People's Republic of China in Los Angeles, was on hand for the ceremony. Calling San Diego "a home away from home" for pandas, he noted that Bai Yun has been relatively prolific in breeding.

"This is a way that shows how comfortably she is enjoying the sunshine of Southern California," Shaofang said.

Naming a giant panda after it has been alive 100 days is a Chinese tradition observed by zoo officials. Xiao Liwu is 107 days old.

The other finalists, culled from more than 7,000 name suggestions received in September, were:

-- Qi Ji, which means Miracle
-- Yu Di, which means Raindrop
-- Da Hai, which means Big Ocean or Big Sea
-- Yong Er, which means Brave Son
-- Shui Long, which means Water Dragon

Bai Yun was nearly 21 years old when she delivered her newest cub, making her the oldest giant panda known to give birth.

Bai Yun's other offsprings are Yun Zi, meaning "son of cloud;" Zhen Zhen, or "precious;" Su Lin, or "a little bit of something very cute;" Mei Sheng, or "born in the USA or beautiful life;" and Hua Mei, or "China USA."

"This is really special, and I think the name encapsulates that too … 'Little Gift,' and it's a gift for us to be here today," said Amanda Martukovich, who was visiting the zoo from Cleveland.

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 the age of 3. Only the newest cub and Yun Zi, who turned 3 in August, remain at the San Diego Zoo today.

The local zoo is one of four in the U.S. that participate in the loan program. For a hefty fee to China, these zoos get to study the critically endangered species up close and help with breeding. At the same time, the pandas make them highly popular attractions.

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.

Bai Yun was brought to the zoo in 1996 along with a male panda on loan from China. The two did not take to each other, but it brought people to the zoo in droves.  

"We called it 'pandamonium,' and every time we had a cub it just attracted that many more people to come and see," said Swaisgood.

Though the zoo did not want to release attendance figures, Leisure and Travel Magazine rated San Diego as the most popular zoo in the country with more than 4 million visitors a year, and credited the panda exhibit with largely the reason why.

Xiao Liwu won't make his public debut until sometime in December perhaps around Christmas.

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