With heavy hearts, officials at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, DC, have bid farewell to its three resident giant pandas. Mei Xiang, 25, Tian Tian, 26, and their 3-year-old son, Xiao Qi Ji, left for China aboard a retrofitted Boeing 777 aircraft on November 8, 2023. Upon reaching Chengdu on November 9, 2023, the trio was whisked away to the Wolong Panda Center. After a 30-day quarantine, the mammals will be allowed to mingle with the 150 wild giant pandas at the nature reserve.
"It's a place where they have lots and lots of giant pandas... how our giant pandas live here, very similar to that," said Bryan Amaral, the Zoo's senior curator. "They just have a lot more giant pandas than we have. Where we have elephants and, you know, all kinds of other things, they have just pandas."
The departure of the three pandas marks the end of a 50-year era that began in 1972 with the arrival of Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. The endangered mammals were a gift to the American people to commemorate President Nixon's historic visit to China.
Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing had five cubs during their 20 years at the Zoo. Unfortunately, none of them survived. In 1992, Ling-Ling died suddenly from heart failure. The then 23-year-old was the oldest of her kind living in captivity outside China. Hsing-Hsing easily passed Ling-Ling's record. But he had to be put down at age 29 due to poor health.
Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived in Washington, DC, on December 6, 2000. However, unlike Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, they were on loan from China. In exchange, the Zoo contributed funds and expertise toward giant panda conservation efforts in China. The agreement also required any cubs born to the couple to be sent back to China once they turned four.
During their 23 years at the Zoo, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian had seven cubs, four of which survived. The first three, Tai Shan (b. 2005), Bao Bao (b. 2013), and Bei Bei (b. 2015), are currently thriving in China. Tai Shan and Bao Bao have even welcomed cubs of their own.
There is currently no new agreement to bring back giant pandas to the US. However, Zoo Director Brandie Smith is optimistic.
"No matter what happens, we are going to continue our giant panda conservation work, the stuff that we are doing, you know, in the field to save pandas, to save the species and our hopes," she said. "My dream is that giant pandas will return to the National Zoo sometime in the near future."
Meanwhile, Zoo officials are focusing on improving the panda habitat. They plan to add extra climbing structures and also update the air conditioning and smoke detection systems.
Resources: nationalzoo.si.edu, cbsnews.com