TOKYO (AP) – Panda twin cubs first appeared in public on Wednesday in front of devoted fans in Tokyo, but so far only briefly – only for three days – due to a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant.
The twins, young Xiao Xiao and his sister Lei Lei, who was born in Tokyo at Ueno Zoo in June, took the first steps when glowing fans picked up their smartphones to film a plush couple playing together.
In a video released by the zoo on Wednesday, the twins are sitting back to back on a tree and playing with bamboo, while visitors may hear them say “kawaii (cute)!” in backround. The cub then steps on his sister to move to the tree.
The twins, who were pink palm-sized creatures at birth, now each weigh as much as a toddler and have developed black and white fur. They enjoy climbing trees and playing chips on the ground, the zoo says.
In preparation for their debut, the twins and their mother were placed in a shared dwelling, where they were exposed to radio sounds to get used to the noise and voices of the visitors.
The zoo has been closed since Tuesday because the highly portable omicron variant is spreading rapidly across Japan. The zoo is open until Friday only for the exhibition of panda twins and every day has access to 1,080 visitors who won slots in the competition lottery.
Groups of six people were allowed to enter the panda quarters, where they could stay for one minute. Public viewing time is limited to two in the morning.
Rare animals live mainly in the bamboo-covered mountains of Sichuan in China.
For decades, China has borrowed its unofficial national mascot in what is known as “panda diplomacy.” All pandas, including those born abroad, must eventually be returned to China.
The older sister of the twins, Xiang Xiang, born at Ueno Zoo in 2017, is to be sent back to China in June.
In China, about 1,800 pandas live in the wild and about 500 others are held captive in zoos and reserves, most in the country.