Giant panda birthday party made possible by Covid-19

By Chet Chin

There are not many good things to say about the Covid-19 pandemic that hit us in early 2020 and continues to cast its shadow globally till today. But to me, there is one unexpected but positive “side effect” for the giant panda world: overseas born pandas due to be returned to China that have had their journeys delayed and postponed more than once, continue to stay in the zoos where they were born. Zoo Negara Malaysia is one such zoo with a giant panda staying on extended time due to Covid-19.

Yi Yi, our second panda cub born in Malaysia, celebrated her 5th birthday recently on 14 January. According to the Malaysian giant panda loan agreement, all panda cubs born here would have to be returned to China any time after their 2nd birthday. Nuan Nuan, our firstborn panda cub, was returned to China on 14 November 2017, less than 3 months after her 2nd birthday. Yi Yi looked set to follow in big sister’s footsteps after her 2nd birthday on 14 January 2020. But Covid-19 struck very soon after, with China going into lockdown later that month, and Malaysia following in mid March.

Yi Yi’s birth in January is also something of an anomaly in the world of giant pandas. Giant panda cubs are usually born between July and September each year as the giant panda breeding season happens during the spring season (in this case, the northern spring season, because Sichuan Province, home of giant pandas, is located north of the equator). Her birth in January was more aligned with the southern spring season. Lucky for us in Malaysia that she was born in January. If not, we would not have had such an international gathering for her 2nd birthday on 14 January 2020.

Yi Yi’s birth in January had also caught the attention of panda fans all over the world. As the firstborn panda cub in 2018, she enjoyed the sole attention of the fans for quite a few months before other panda cubs were born that year. This led to her winning the Gold Award for Giant Panda Global’s Favourite Panda Cub of 2018, and the presence of panda fans from three countries (China, Japan, and Taiwan), as well as local fans from around Malaysia, at her 2nd birthday celebration. Some of the overseas panda fans had never been to Malaysia before, and their presence at the celebration was also their first time in the country.

As it turned out, 14 January 2020 wasn’t the last time we got to celebrate Yi Yi’s birthday in Malaysia. She was also here for her 3rd, 4th and recently her 5th birthday.

Her 3rd birthday happened during an extended MCO (movement control order, as the lockdown is called in Malaysia). Zoo Negara Malaysia was closed during that time so only the Malaysian panda team was on hand to celebrate her 3rd birthday with her.

By the time of her 4th birthday, the MCO had relaxed, Zoo Negara Malaysia was open to visitors, and a small group of local panda fans gathered to celebrate with her. Overseas panda friends could not join us as international travel was still very restricted.

And now we come to her 5th birthday. Three years after her 2nd birthday and the start of the horrible Covid-19 pandemic, we have taken the necessary vaccines and boosters that protect us. International travel had been relaxed since her 4th birthday, so the celebration was more international, with one panda friend from Singapore and two from Japan joining us.

Looking back, the group at Yi Yi’s 2nd birthday was so big, we had to take the group photo outdoors. As for her recent 5th birthday, while the group was smaller, it was small enough for us to have a photo taken inside the panda hall at the end of the day, and with the birthday girl! A most fitting end to a happy 5th birthday for our second cub Yi Yi.