WHAT CAN YOU say about a three-hour-old panda cub who died? He wasn't in the world long enough for any human being to get to know him, but we are certain the nation's capital is an emptier place without him.

No distraction from the disappointment of the event can be found in assigning blame. Everyone involved behaved admirably. Perhaps a softer landing might have been provided for the cub's stunningly forcible ejection into this harsh world, but he apparently recovered vigorously from the shock. And you might also wonder about Mother Nature's judgment in assigning a 4.7-ounce cub to a 250-pound mother. But the cub was not the victim of any oversight on his gigantic mother's part. Once she became aware of his existence, she was, in the words of zoo official Dr. Devra Kleiman, "as appropriately maternal as we could imagine. She was perfect."

Becoming a mother has not been an easy task for Ling-Ling. In her 10 years of attempted pregnancy, she has been subjected to a succession of public indignities--including exposure to that roughneck lover-boy from London--which no decent female should have to endure. Even in her momentary triumph, she was deprived of the security that comes to a mother from knowing who her baby's father is.

Whatever doubts about Ling-Ling's maternal adequacy had been raised by her occasionally frivolous behavior in the earlier stages of her quest for fertility were surely laid to rest by the tenderness with which she cradled and licked her tiny baby throughout its brief life. That is the encouraging side of this sad occasion. The death of a firstborn, we are told, is not uncommon in the animal world. And the fact that Ling-Ling has successfully conceived, brought forth and nurtured a cub makes it much more likely that she will give birth to a healthy cub next year. In the meantime, Ling-Ling deserves a little unaccustomed privacy along with condolences from her many admirers.