San Diego Zoo’s giant panda celebrates 26th birthday

SAN DIEGO - The first giant panda to successfully give birth to surviving cubs in the U.S., celebrated her 26th birthday at the San Diego Zoo Thursday.

Zoo officials decorated Bai Yun’s habitat with red birthday envelopes stuffed with treats, pillows packed with hay, a bread cake decorated with apple slices, and goodie bags topped full of snacks -- each with the names of her cubs written on the front.

The panda is now a mother of six, helping to restock a species once on the brink of extinction.

"Bai Yun has been an amazing asset to our panda conservation program over the past two decades," said Kathy Hawk, senior keeper at the zoo.

"Even though it's her 26th birthday, we wanted to let our guests to know why she's here," Hawk said. "Since she's been at the San Diego Zoo, we've learned a great deal about her and her species through her -- including mother-infant relationships and overall panda biology. And for that we celebrate her."

Guests watched as Bai Yun enthusiastically opened each of her present boxes and goodie bags, devouring all the treats inside. She also gobbled up every morsel of her panda bread cake, took a long drink of water -- and after all that partying, decided to lie down for a well-earned nap.

Last year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature reclassified the giant panda as vulnerable instead of endangered. The organization noted that conservation efforts are working, though breeding and habitat loss remain a problem.

Scientists count nearly 2,000 giant pandas living in their native habitats. The majority are adults.

The zoo's giant pandas are on a research loan from China. The zoo works on panda conservation programs in conjunction with Chinese panda experts, and collaborates with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in studies of behavior, ecology, genetics and conservation of pandas in the wild.