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Panda receives name Mei Lan to great fanfare

ATLANTA - Zoo Atlanta's baby panda finally has a name - Mei Lan.

State, national and international officials gathered Friday at Zoo Atlanta to unveil the name of the giant panda cub and honor an ancient Chinese tradition.

Following a tradition in many parts of China, pandas are not named until they are 100 days old - a date chosen because of the species' high infant mortality rate.

"What a great, great day for the city of Atlanta, the state of Georgia and the people of China," said Dennis Kelly, president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta.

The new name, Mei Lan, means "Atlanta Beauty." It was chosen by 57,000 voters who took part in an online poll to name the panda. Twenty-two percent of voters chose Mei Lan, pronounced ''may-lan," out of the list of 10 names. Other names in the running included Xiao Tao, meaning "Little Peach"; Mei Tao, meaning "Beautiful Peach"; and Cheng Ya, meaning "Pretty Atlanta Girl from Chengdu."

"I am thrilled by the new name," Kelly said. "It was one of my favorites. It's a beautiful name for a beautiful animal."

Shown on a large television screen throughout the ceremony, the baby cub slept soundly, unaware of the pandemonium circulating about her name. As the winning name was unveiled, the panda woke briefly, then quickly went back to sleep.

"I think she heard the name and was so pleased, she woke up," Kelly said.

Leading up to the name announcement, the Ying Hung Gwoon dance team performed a traditional Lion Dance and children from Chinese Children Adoption International sang "Panda Song."

The ceremony was about more than just naming the cub, as leaders from both Georgia and China spoke about the momentous occasion. Calling the cub a "symbol of years of research and collaboration between the zoo and the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China," Zhang Zhihe, director of the base, marked the day as a historic moment.

"With the birth of this panda, we have achieved one of our highest goals. Every panda birth is significant," Zhihe said. "This is a symbol of friendship between our countries, as we must all work together to protect the natural world."

Mei Lan was the only giant panda cub born in the United States this year, but she was one of 28 giant pandas born worldwide - the highest number of panda cubs born in one year since 1963, said Liu Shanghua, president of the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens.

"The year 2006 was a harvest year for the panda population," Shanghua said. "It was a fruitful year."

Should the Chinese need any assistance naming their 28 cubs, Kelly said the zoo would be happy to help out.

"Congratulations on those 28 births. We have nine extra names if you guys need any," Kelly said.

Born to panda parents Lun Lun and Yang Yang, who have been on loan to the zoo since 1999, Mei Lan was born Sept. 6. In the last six years, only five panda cubs have been born in the United States. Giant pandas are on the endangered list of animals, and there are only an estimated 1,600 giant pandas remaining in the world, making the birth of a panda a significant event, said Minister Zheng Zeguang, deputy chief of missions for the Republic of China.

"The giant panda is a national treasure in China and we are making an unprecedented effort to save this treasure," Zeguang said. "With each birth of a new panda, it is a sign of tremendous progress."