Twin Panda Cubs Xiao Xiao and Lei Lei Have Zoo Debut Cut Short Due to Omicron

A Tokyo zoo debuted twin panda cubs to the public for the first time on Wednesday, but the display will be short-lived because of Japan's Omicron variant-driven spike in COVID-19 cases.

A limited number of fans will be able to see male cub Xiao Xiao and its sister Lei Lei at the Ueno Zoo through Friday before the park again closes off viewings three days after launching them.

The two panda cubs were born at the zoo in June, but Wednesday was the first day that zoo-goers could see them in person. Ueno had been closed since Tuesday because of the virus' rapid spread across Japan but has now opened only for the panda exhibit.

Just 1,080 visitors per day, all of whom secured their spots through a competitive lottery, will be able to see the twin pandas. The public viewing period is only open for two hours in the morning, with zoo staff permitting groups of six people to enter the panda quarters for one minute at a time.

Naoya Ohashi, one of the staff members at Ueno Zoo, said that he was sorry that the pandas' debut had to be restricted and voiced hopes that more people will be able to see the twins when infection rates are lower.

Panda Display Cut Short
Twin panda cubs made their first public appearance Wednesday before their devoted fans but only briefly - just for three days for now - due to the upsurge of the highly transmissible coronavirus variant. Japanese-born twin pandas Xiao Xiao, top, and Lei Lei, bottom, are seen together at Ueno Zoo in Tokyo, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022, in this photo provided by Tokyo Zoological Park Society, Tokyo Zoological Park Society via AP

The twins took their first steps as beaming fans held up their smartphones to film the cuddly pair as they played together.

In a video released by the zoo Wednesday, the twin cubs sit back to back on a tree playing with bamboo while visitors can be heard saying "kawaii (cute)!" in the background. Then the male cub steps on its sister to move up the tree.

"My heart thumped with excitement when I first saw them," said Kirie Tanaka, an avid panda fan who came from the western Japanese city of Osaka for the day.

During her turn, the cubs were pretending to eat bamboo and "that was just adorable," said Tanaka, whose hat and bag were decorated with panda-motif ornaments. "It's so comforting to see them."

The twins, which were palm-sized pink creatures when they were born, now weigh as much as a toddler each and have developed black-and-white fur. They enjoy climbing trees and playing together on the wood chips on the ground, according to the zoo.

In preparation for their debut, the twins and their mother were placed in a shared living quarter where they were exposed to sounds from a radio to get used to noise and voices from visitors.

The rare animals live mainly in the bamboo-covered mountains in China's Sichuan area.

China has for decades loaned its unofficial national mascot in what is known as "panda diplomacy." All pandas, including those born abroad, must eventually be returned to China.

The twin cubs' elder sister, Xiang Xiang, born in the Ueno Zoo in 2017, is set to be sent back to China in June.

There are about 1,800 pandas living in the wild in China and about 500 others in captivity in zoos and reserves, the majority within the country.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Ueno Zoo
A limited number of fans will be able to see male panda cub Xiao Xiao and its sister Lei Lei at the Ueno Zoo through Friday before the park again closes off viewings three days after launching them. Pigeons are seen at an entrance of Tokyo's Ueno Zoo temporarily closed on March 28, 2020. Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images