By Ines Kagubare
BRUGELETTE, Belgium (Reuters) - A baby giant panda was born in a Belgian zoo on Thursday, a rare event for an endangered species that numbers barely 2,000 worldwide.
"It's a boy!" the director of the Pairi Daiza wildlife park, Eric Domb, told a news conference at the zoo in southern Belgium. "Everything went exceptionally well."
Yet to be given a name, the cub emerged in the early hours to six-year-old Hao Hao following an artificial insemination from her mate Xing Hui, supervised by Chinese and local experts.
Hairless, blind and weighing just 171 grams (6 ounces), the infant was described as "a little pink sausage", by the park's zoological director, Tim Bouts. The cub gave a loud cry before being scooped up in its mother's mouth: "Hao Hao, who is a first-time mother, she was amazing," Bouts said.
The pregnancy was confirmed only a couple of weeks ago and, with pandas notoriously reluctant to mate in captivity, the team were cautious even then about if and when Hao Hao would give birth. Mother and baby were now doing well, but Bouts said the newborn was still in a risky period for any young panda.
Hao Hao, whose name means "kindly", could be seen later in the day resting in her open enclosure.
The zoo has hosted the pair since 2014 under an arrangement with the Chinese authorities. It can keep the cub for four years before it would be returned to China if all goes well.
World nature organization WWF says a survey in 2014 found only 1,864 giant pandas living in the wild, almost double the numbers in the late 1970s and 17 percent up in a decade.
As part of efforts to save the species, which has been hit hard by human encroachment on the highlands where they survive almost entirely on a diet of bamboo, more than 300 pandas now live in zoos, mostly in China.
They struggle to reproduce in captivity, however -- though artificial breeding techniques and better knowledge of their needs has seen an increase in births in recent years.
Pairi Daiza said Belgium had become the third country in Europe to see the successful reproduction of pandas after Austria and Spain. The last successful birth in Europe was at Madrid three years ago.
(Writing by Alastair Macdonald in Brussels; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)