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How does a giant panda get its name?

A giant panda cub resting on a tree.
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Since the departure last year of Bei Bei, the National Zoo’s most recent baby panda, zookeepers and avid panda cam watchers have been eagerly awaiting the birth of another panda cub. On August 21, the zoo in Washington, D.C. welcomed a new baby panda to the world. The zoo’s Giant Panda Cam offers glimpses of mother Mei Xiang caring for her newborn baby, and allows viewers a chance to see the pandas whether or not they can actually go to the zoo.

People are already wondering: what is the panda cub going to be named? Baby panda names have been chosen in a variety of ways in the past. First Lady Michelle Obama and Madame Peng Liyuan, China’s first lady, chose the name for Bei Bei, born in 2015 to Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. Bei Bei means precious or treasure in Mandarin. Bei Bei’s older sister, Bao Bao (which also means precious or treasure) was born in 2013 and named through an online vote. Voters had five names to choose from, and Bao Bao won over the other four: “Ling Hua (darling, delicate flower), Long Yun (Long equals a dragon symbol, Yun equals charming), Mulan (legendary young woman) and Zhen Bao (treasure, valuable).” Public voting also determined the names for panda cubs at Zoo Atlanta in 2016 and at the Pairi Daiza zoo in Belgium in 2019.

While the panda was born this past week, we will most likely wait 100 days before learning what the baby’s name is. (This naming tradition isn’t always strictly followed—Bei Bei’s name was announced early to coincide with the state visit of China’s president Xi Jinping—but it is the typical protocol for panda naming at zoos.) When it comes to choosing the names for the public to vote on, the National Zoo consults colleagues in China for names to pick from. According to the Washingtonian in 2012, the process involves receiving “a pre-approved list of possibilities from their colleagues at the China Wildlife Conservation Association” from which they “narrow the list down to one possibility with the help of an online poll.” While no announcement has been made yet for how naming will work for this newest panda cub, it may follow this same format. Meanwhile, other zoos may receive name ideas from the public, but they largely tend to be Chinese names.

Why do we follow this naming tradition? Giant pandas are native to China, and in China, it was once considered tradition to wait 100 days before naming human babies. The giant pandas at the National Zoo, and other zoos around the world, are actually on loan from China. Whenever a new baby panda is born in Washington, D.C., it is raised and studied for four years by the zoo’s scientists before being sent to China, to the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda. This is part of the National Zoo’s cooperative breeding agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association, which is currently set to expire in December of this year. The agreement has been extended multiple times already since it was originally signed in 2000. 

China first gave two pandas to the National Zoo in 1972, who lived out their lives in D.C. through the 1990s. (They were not the first pandas to be gifted to the United States, however; in 1941, China gave two pandas to the Bronx Zoo.) Not only does having giant pandas at the zoo offer scientists “an unparalleled opportunity to study giant panda behavior, health and reproduction,” but it also acts as a form of diplomacy between the two countries—literally called panda diplomacy. Zoo visitors get to enjoy gazing at adorable pandas, scientists contribute to important research, and giant panda conservation gains the funding and awareness needed to help preserve this beloved species.

The naming ceremony at the National Zoo this year will most likely be a virtual one, and the zoo will first have to consult their colleagues in China regarding the naming and ceremony processes. We should know soon how the naming will happen, whether by public vote or another method, and in less than 100 days that name will be announced. In the meantime, enjoy some cute panda views on the Giant Panda Cam.

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