The Smithsonian National Zoo's giant pandas, Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and their 3-year-old offspring Xiao Qi Ji, are returning to China.
Panda Express: On Wednesday morning, the pandas were loaded onto FedEx trucks using forklifts and were transported to Dulles International Airport in Virginia. They boarded the “FedEx Panda Express,” a Boeing 777F aircraft with a custom decal, and were scheduled to depart at 1 p.m. local time. The pandas’ ultimate destination is the China Wildlife Conservation Association.
Zookeepers and admirers of the beloved pandas gathered at the airport to bid them farewell. As the plane departed, the crowd expressed both sadness and good wishes, while remaining hopeful for the bears’ new chapter.
“It’s a moment of joy because this is one more step in 50 years of a successful giant panda conservation program, and hopefully the beginning of 50 more years,” National Zoo Director Brandie Smith told NBC Washington. “Please know the future is bright for giant pandas. We remain committed to our program, and we look forward to celebrating with all of you when pandas can return to D.C.”
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About the pandas: Mei Xiang, 26, and Tian Tian, 25, initially came to the zoo in 2000 as part of a research and breeding program. Although their stay was initially planned for 10 years, it was extended several times. The expiration for the research and breeding agreement between the U.S. and China is set to expire in December.
Breeding programs have contributed to the successful conservation of pandas, with their status upgraded from "endangered" to "vulnerable" in 2017. However, the wild panda population only remains around 1,864, primarily in China’s Sichuan Province.
The remaining pandas: During their time in D.C., Mei Xiang gave birth to seven cubs, three of which died before adulthood and three others who have already been returned to China. Currently, only four giant pandas from the program will remain in the U.S., with plans for Lun Lun, Yang Yang, Ya Lun and Xi Lun at the Atlanta Zoo to also fly back to China by the age of four in 2024.
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Although Wednesday is not the first time pandas have left the region, the recent departure marks the first time in 23 years that the panda exhibit at the National Zoo will be empty. The National Zoo's panda enclosure will reportedly undergo renovation during the pandas’ absence.
Diplomatic pandas: Pandas first arrived in the U.S. in 1972, a few months after President Richard Nixon's visit to China. The panda loan program has been used for diplomatic and scientific exchange over the years. The recall is viewed by some as related to political tensions between the two nations. However, Smith shut down the speculations.
“We're a bunch of scientists; we're a bunch of animal people,” Smith noted. “This is not a political conversation. This is absolutely a conversation between colleagues talking about what's best for the overall program, and also, what can be best for individual animals?”
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