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Video captures giant panda cub’s adorable gymnastics at National Zoo

He climbs. He somersaults. Whoops, he tumbles. Officials say the young cub had the ‘sillies.’

Giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji showed off his “sillies” during a solo play session at the National Zoo. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Just like a kid, the National Zoo’s giant panda cub is having fun and tumbling, as he’s also learning to spend his days on his own in an enclosure away from his mama in an effort to eventually separate from her.

Officials posted a video on Twitter showing Xiao Qi Ji rolling in the winter weather, which the zoo said had brought out “the sillies.” Now 2 years old, Xiao Qi Ji is reaching his milestones and doing well, noted one of his curators. He’s a “big boy,” the curator said, weighing roughly 200 pounds — nearly as much as his mother, Mei Xiang.

Pandas live solitary lives, experts noted, and so it was time for Xiao Qi Ji to venture out. Late last year, keepers started to have Xiao Qi Ji spend some time in his own enclosure, where he will someday live on his own. His father, Tian Tian, lives in another enclosure nearby.

For now, Xiao Qi Ji is in a transition period in which he spends his days alone in his new enclosure and his nights with his mom, according to Laurie Thompson, the assistant curator of giant pandas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. She said Xiao Qi Ji is “adjusting very well” in his time apart from his mom.

Panda cub at National Zoo begins process of getting his own place

Xiao Qi Ji was born in August 2020. He was the first giant panda cub in five years at the D.C. zoo. At the time of his birth, his mother was 22, making her the oldest giant panda to give birth in the United States. She won’t be bred anymore, officials said, because of her age. As part of a deal, the zoo’s three giant pandas will all go to China at the end of this year.

Typically, giant panda cubs separate from their mothers when they’re about 18 months to 24 months old. But zookeepers said they’re a bit surprised that Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji still seem to enjoy being around each other. Thompson said they’re “happily coexisting.”

“Usually the mother will push them out,” Thompson said. But Mei Xiang hasn’t done that.

“We didn’t expect her to be this tolerant of him for this long,” Thompson said. “She’s been very patient with him. She’s older, and she’s still a great mom.”

Still, when she’s had enough of her cub’s playful nature, Mei Xiang will push him off and vocalize, Thompson said. The cub, she said, “gets it and he’ll run away and calm down.”

Zookeepers said they’re watching the two closely, and if it seems as though they can “no longer be living together peacefully,” they’ll probably move the cub to his new enclosure, according to Thompson.

Roughly 1,800 giant pandas live in their native habitat in China, and 600 others live in breeding centers and zoos around the world, according to the National Zoo. They are known to be adept climbers, and giant panda cubs especially like to climb trees, experts said.

When alone in his new enclosure, Thompson said, Xiao Qi Ji sometimes “gets a burst of energy” and goes outside and plays or climbs on his structures. When he climbs and then hangs upside down, she said, it’s a sign he’s having fun.

A recent video of the young cub in his new enclosure shows him as he climbs on a structure in his enclosure and slides down a tree. He somersaults down a hill covered in leaves.

At one point, even though he doesn’t make it far up a tree he’s trying to climb, he seems to take it in stride as he falls and rolls. Undeterred, he climbs poles to a bedlike area, pulling himself up and over, flipping over a pole and then tumbling down.

Officials at the zoo said the cub’s play sessions let experts see his confidence and comfort level “while he and his mom are apart.”