'It's a boy!': Chinese panda gives birth in Belgium

Brussels (AFP) - A giant panda on loan to Belgium from China gave birth to a cub in a Belgian zoo on Thursday, a rare event for the endangered species that numbers fewer than 2,000 in the wild.

The mother Hao Hao immediately took the tiny and hairless squealing male cub in her jaws to protect it and clean it, in video footage released by the Pairi Daiza wildlife park outside Brussels.

"Hao Hao's first son is right now in the best of health and weighs 171 grams (six ounces)," the zoo said in a joint statement with the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda.

Announcing the news with "great pleasure," the statement said: "Less than 2,000 pandas can be found in the wild, making every birth a true miracle."

It was the third panda cub born in the world this year and only the third to be born in Europe in the last 20 years. Austria and Spain were the previous venues.

The little panda has yet to be named.

"We are waiting to be sure he is viable and armed for life. The name will be beautiful, and Chinese, but Belgians will be able to pronounce it," the veterinary team said in a statement.

The zoo warned that the mortality rate for baby pandas in their first year is high.

China loaned Hao Hao and her mate Xing Hui to Belgium for 15 years in February 2014 to mark Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit to the kingdom.

They quickly became a main attraction.

- 'Excellent mother' -

Hao Hao was artificially inseminated twice in February with the sperm of Xing Hui.

The zoo, in Brugelette, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Brussels, said last month that Hao Hao was showing signs she could be pregnant, but had remained cautious over whether she would actually give birth.

"For several weeks, she ate twice the usual amounts of bamboo, then she became increasingly disinterested in food and began to refuse to leave her cave", Hao Hao's minder Tania Stroobant had said.

"Very recently we also noticed a swelling of her breasts which indicates that she is preparing to breastfeed."

Hao Hao's Belgian and Chinese carers brought her to a so-called "birthing box" after she showed the first signs she was about to give birth on Tuesday.

Contractions began around 11:00 pm (2100 GMT) Wednesday, with the cub entering the world at 2:02 am on Thursday.

Hours after Hao Hao grabbed the cub in her jaws, carers managed to extract mother's milk to stimulate production.

They will continue to encourage Hao Hao to nurse her baby, but could give him a bottle if necessary.

"Hao Hao has all the traits that will make her an excellent mother," the zoo said.

There remain about 1,800 freely roaming pandas in the world, with about 400 in captivity, mainly in southwest China.

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