#PandaStory: Xiao Qi Ji Explores His New Habitat

This update was written by Asia Trail keeper Mariel Lally.

Giant Panda Cam viewers were the first to see Xiao Qi Ji mark yet another milestone: his first trip into habitat three. On the morning of Dec. 8—before the Zoo opened to the public—Xiao Qi Ji explored this new exhibit with his mother, Mei Xiang, by his side.

When introducing an animal to a new environment, there are key behaviors that keepers look for to ensure their comfortability in the space. Are they eating? Are they resting? Are they playing if they are a species that plays?

Giant panda Xiao Qi Ji snacks on a piece of sugar cane outside the Panda House Dec. 8, 2022.
Dec. 8, 2022 | Giant panda Xiao Qi Ji bites down on a piece of sugar cane. 

Most mornings these days, Xiao Qi Ji and Mei Xiang spend time separately and do so with ease. But during these first few ventures into habitat three, they were together. Knowing that a new environment with so much to offer might be intimidating to our young panda, we gave both of them access to this space as well as their indoor enclosure. That way, Xiao Qi Ji could retreat to a space he was familiar with, if he felt the need.

Luckily, Xiao Qi Ji followed Mei Xiang into habitat three with no hesitation! He spent most of his time busily exploring, scent marking and even ran around a little bit. He checked out all the new trees, waterfalls, views and scents the exhibit had to offer.

Dec. 8, 2022 | Giant pandas Mei Xiang (foreground) and Xiao Qi Ji explore habitat three together. In the afternoon, the pair had a play session, and the 2-year-old cub tried to climb on his mother's back. 

Just having the novelty of exploring a new habitat is extremely enriching for all animals, but especially Xiao Qi Ji. We did not have to put any special items in the exhibit, just his normal diet items, which he was not as interested in engaging with as much as the environment itself.

He spent most of the morning exploring on his own while Mei Xiang happily ate bamboo. Occasionally, he ate near Mei Xiang, and sometimes rested near where she was eating at the time. They played in the afternoon, just like they tend to do when they are in the outdoor habitats on the other side of the building.  

Xiao Qi Ji has now been in this new habitat a handful of times and has climbed trees, investigated the rockwork across from the red panda habitat, picked out some new resting spots (and napped there) and learned that he can interact with his keepers through the glass when they are on their way to the red panda exhibit!

Since this habitat is still new to Xiao Qi Ji, he has not found his “spot” yet. We anticipate that with more time in this space he will find a favorite spot to hang out in, much like he has in Mei Xiang and Tian Tian’s habitats. 

Xiao Qi Ji’s behaviors indicate that he is comfortable in this space—he eats, naps, plays and explores. Even if Mei Xiang chooses to be inside, he will wander outside independently and do all of these things.

Now that keepers feel comfortable with Xiao Qi Ji in all of the panda habitats and know that he is comfortable in each exhibit, there will be more flexibility with the day-to-day routine at the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat. This creates the ability to move all three pandas around, which is very enriching for them!

Giant panda Xiao Qi Ji snacks on a piece of sugar cane outside the Panda House Dec. 8, 2022.
Dec. 8, 2022 | Giant panda Xiao Qi Ji snacks on a piece of sugar cane outside the Panda House.

Some days you may see Xiao Qi Ji in habitats one or two, or maybe sometimes only in habitat three. No matter which exhibit he is in on any given day, Giant Panda Cam viewers will be able to see Xiao Qi Ji, provided he spends time in an area that is visible by the cameras. Our team continues to monitor Xiao Qi Ji closely throughout the day to ensure that he is comfortable, happy and all of his needs are met.

Most pandas in zoos and in the wild wean their cubs between 18 months to 2 years of age, but Xiao Qi Ji is about 2.5 years old and is still living with his mother. Just because Xiao Qi Ji has begun exploring habitat three does not mean that our team plans to separate him and Mei Xiang indefinitely. We are monitoring the pandas’ behavior and interactions to make day-to-day decisions about how best to manage them.

Both pandas have found their independence during their hours separated from one another and generally use the time to eat then nap. When Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji show that they are ready to be back together, keepers reunite them. Then, they usually eat and play! We are enjoying this time of watching Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji, but also know that he is a growing bear that will one day be independent.

This story appears in the Dec. 20 issue of the Giant Panda Bulletin; read previous cub updates here. Want to see the pandas in person? Plan your visit! The Giant Panda Cam is generously sponsored by Boeing.