Rare giant panda born in Belgium

BRUGELETTE, Belgium (Reuters): A baby giant panda was born in a Belgian zoo on Thursday, a rare event for an endangered species that numbers fewer than 2,000 worldwide. The healthy male cub was born in the early hours at the Paira Daiza wildlife park to six-year-old Hao Hao and her mate Xing Hui. The pink, blind, hairless cub weighed just 171 grammes (6 ounces). Hao Hao’s “probable” pregnancy was announced just two weeks ago, accompanied by caution about detecting the tiny foetus. The cub, to be given a name later, emerged as “a little pink sausage” and gave a loud cry before being scooped up in Hao Hao’s mouth, the park’s zoological director Tim Bouts said.

Mother and baby were now doing well, he said, “But we are still in a risky period.”

The zoo, which has hosted the pair since 2014 under an arrangement with the Chinese authorities, cooperated with experts from the animals’ native China to treat the mother by artificial insemination.

World nature organisation 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 notoriously 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.


US urges food industry to cut back on salt

WASHINGTON (AFP): The US government has released non-binding guidelines for the food industry to slash salt levels in their products to levels considered safe by medical experts and consumer groups. The US Food and Drug Administration is proposing two-year and 10-year voluntary targets for the industry to help Americans gradually reduce their sodium consumption. The draft guidelines are available for public comment. “The totality of the scientific evidence supports sodium reduction from current intake levels,” said Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in a statement.

Average salt intake in the United States currently hovers around 3,400 milligrams per day, and the FDA hopes the guidance will reduce that level to 2,300 milligrams per day.

A 40 percent reduction in sodium consumption in the US could save 500,000 lives and nearly $100 billion in health spending, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

One in three people in the United States has high blood pressure - a condition often linked to overconsumption of salt - with one in two African Americans affected, as well as one in 10 children ages 8 to 17.

In surveys most Americans indicate that they do want eat less salt, a difficult task as most sodium intake stems from processed and pre-prepared foods.

The FDA hopes to persuade major food manufacturers and restaurant chains to reduce sodium in their products - in particular the 10 percent of packaged foods that make up more than 80 percent of all sales. The voluntary guidelines are aimed at nearly 150 food categories that range from baked goods to soups.


Crawl fate: French robbers try to escape by swimming

ORLÉANS, France (AFP): Two armed robbers who held up a supermarket in central France tried to make their getaway by swimming after floods cut off their escape route by car, investigators said Thursday. The pair sped off into the local forest with motocycle police on their tail after they robbed a supermarket near the city of Orleans on Wednesday. But they found the forest road cut off by a torrent of floodwater up to one and a half metres (five feet) deep. Forced to abandon their car, they tried to escape by swimming but were picked up, soaking wet and freezing cold.

“Bad weather helped in their arrest,” said Yolande Renzi, the local prosecutor. Central and northern France have been hit by exceptional rain since Monday, cutting off roads and railway lines and leaving thousands without power.


Slain Cincinnati gorilla likely to live on in genetic ‘frozen zoo’

OHIO (Reuters): After shooting dead a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo to save a 3-year-old boy, zoo officials said they had collected a sample of his sperm, raising hopes among distraught fans that Harambe could sire offspring even in death. But officials at the main US body that oversees breeding of zoo animals said it was highly unlikely that the Western lowland gorilla’s contribution to the nation’s “frozen zoo” of genetic material of rare and endangered species would be used to breed. “Currently, it’s not anything we would use for reproduction,” Kristen Lukas, who heads the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Gorilla Species Survival Plan, said on Wednesday. “It will be banked and just stored for future use or for research studies.” That undercuts a weekend statement by Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard that the death of the 17-year-old young silverback, who had been too young to breed, was “not the end of his gene pool.”

Zoo officials did not respond to calls on Wednesday seeking more detail on their plans for Harambe’s sperm.

There are currently 350 gorillas of Harambe’s species in US zoos, according to the AZA, which accredits zoos, including Cincinnati’s and approves breeding plans. That population is large enough to maintain a breeding program so robust that many females of child-bearing age are given hormonal contraceptives.

Zoo officials have stood by the decision to shoot Harambe dead on Saturday, saying the 450-pound (200-kg) animal could have easily slain or grievously injured the toddler. But their decision to kill the gorilla has drawn criticism online and sparked a Cincinnati police investigation into the boy’s family.

The highly charismatic animals are closely related to humans, making them popular zoo attractions. Major US zoos from New York’s Bronx Zoo to the San Diego Zoo rely on gorillas as a major draw for visitors.

Harambe’s sperm will likely go into a collection of samples taken from gorillas and other animals that are preserved in liquid nitrogen and typically viable for hundreds of years, said the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Director Robert Hilsenroth. “We call it the frozen zoo,” said Hilsenroth. “It’s nice to have that in your pocket just in case.”

Given the numbers of gorillas in captivity, Harambe’s genetic material would likely be drawn on only in the event of some new disease that took a heavy toll on the population, the AZA’s Lukas said. “In a dire situation like that, we would then be able to continue the population,” Lukas said.

There are about 175,000 of the gorillas in the wild, but habitat destruction, hunting and disease are resulting in a rapid decline in the population.

The practice of breeding gorillas in captivity has been criticized by animal rights groups. “In theory, conserving is great but without a habitat what’s the point,” said Julia Gallucci, primatologist for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.


Tutankhamun dagger likely made from meteoric iron: study

CAIRO (AFP): Scientific analysis of one Tutankhamun’s 3,300-year-old daggers found buried with him “strongly supports” a theory it was made of meteoric iron, according to a new study. “Our study confirms that ancient Egyptians attributed great value to meteoritic iron for the production of precious objects,” said the Italian and Egyptian scientists who performed X-ray analysis of the dagger, which took place at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Tutankhamun died aged 19 in 1324 BC after just nine years on the throne. His tomb, discovered in 1922 by British Egyptologist Howard Carter, contained artefacts including an 11-kilo (24-pound) gold mask that revived global public interest in Egyptology.

rter found the dagger on Tutankhamun’s right thigh in the wrapping of his mummy, according to the authors of the study.

Along with its iron blade, the dagger’s fine gold handle “is decorated with cloisonne and granulation work, and ends with a pommel of rock crystal,” they said.

The findings match a 2013 scan of a 5,000-year-old cemetery in the Lower Egyptian village of El-Gerzeh which showed the earliest iron artefacts ever found were made from a meteorite, according to a paper published May 20 in the Meteoritics & Planetary Science journal.

As a result, “we suggest that ancient Egyptians attributed great value to meteoritic iron for the production of fine ornamental or ceremonial objects,” said the scientists behind the latest study.

The dagger’s quality “suggests a significant mastery of ironworking in Tutankhamun’s time,” said the study.

In addition, a new term used in the 19th dynasty, one dynasty following Akhenaten’s, translated literally as “iron of the sky,” and was used to describe “all types of iron,” according to the study.

“The introduction of the new composite term suggests that the ancient Egyptians... were aware that these rare chunks of iron fell from the sky,” said the authors of the study.

Mahmoud el-Halwagy, a former director of the Egyptian Museum who took part in the study, said he was unable to confirm whether ancient Egyptians clearly knew that this iron came from a meteor.

“We don’t want to go to other angles, to symbolic or religious issues. These were rocks that were available and were used by humans,” said Halwagy.

“Whether they had symbolic or religious uses, this is not unlikely. He was a king and royalty held a high status.”

Other iron ancient artefacts in other parts of the world have been identified scientifically to be of meteoritic origin, the scientists said.

These included iron tools made by Inuits in Greenland, the ancient “Iron Man” Buddhist sculpture, and two funerary bracelets and an axe excavated in two different Polish archaeological sites.