TO LONGTIME residents of the nation's capital, the birth of a panda at the National Zoo is more than just a cheerful occasion: It represents a rare happy development in the 33-year saga that began in 1972 when the Chinese government gave the zoo two pandas, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, as a sign of goodwill following President Richard M. Nixon's historic visit. Despite the zoo's best efforts, over the subsequent two decades the pandas' five cubs died within days of birth; Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling also finally died without having produced a surviving cub. Then in 2000, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived on loan from China -- and Mei Xiang is now a mother.

We are tempted to see in the new birth a number of auspicious signs. First, this is a piece of good news for the National Zoo, which has been under close scrutiny since a number of animal deaths in 2003; which recently has been accused again of mistreating sick animals; and which is still led by an interim zoo director. Attracting a qualified candidate to the job has proved difficult, mainly because the zoo has a national profile and national responsibilities yet does not charge entrance fees, making zoo administrators dependent on congressional largess. More than once we've called for the Smithsonian Institution, of which the zoo is part, to hasten its search process. Perhaps the panda news will encourage more good candidates to come forward, and put the zoo on more stable footing at last.

It is also tempting to hope for a turning point in the fate of the world's pandas. Thanks to habitat destruction and indiscriminate hunting, there may be as few as 1,600 pandas still living in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Others believe the number may be as low as 1,000. Yet the only zoo in this country that's had any luck getting them to reproduce is in San Diego, and Mei Xiang's cub shows why. Tiny -- weighing just a few ounces -- and blind at birth, panda cubs are easily crushed by their 250-pound mothers. The survival of this charismatic species may depend on the survival of the animals now in zoos, so it is hugely important that this one grow up.

But -- who knows? -- a baby panda's birth may foretell many other things, too. A revival of that 1972 warming of relations with China? New hope for the Endangered Species Act, for which enthusiasm appears to have run out in some quarters of Congress? At the very least, if this infant survives it is good news for the Washington area's children and former children, who have been waiting a long time for a panda cub to admire.