Wednesday was an emotional day at Washington’s National Zoo, as staff and visitors bid a heartfelt farewell to its beloved trio of giant pandas. Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and their cub Xiao Qi Ji began their much-anticipated journey back to China, a move that was announced earlier this year. This departure marks the end of a significant chapter in the zoo’s history, where pandas have been a symbol of friendship and conservation efforts for over half a century.
The pandas, comfortably settled in specially designed steel and plexiglass crates, were loaded into a FedEx Boeing 777F cargo plane, aptly named the “FedEx Panda Express.” Their departure from Dulles International Airport included provisions for their 19-hour, 9,000-mile flight: a load of bamboo, apples, and pears. Accompanied by three dedicated zookeepers, the pandas will make their new home in a reserve located in China’s mountainous Sichuan province, a natural habitat for an estimated 1,800 wild pandas.
Brandie Smith, the zoo’s director, expressed her mixed emotions during a brief farewell ceremony. While acknowledging the difficulty of parting with these cherished animals, she emphasized the significance of their transfer as a continuation of a successful giant panda conservation program. Smith’s remarks reflected the zoo’s commitment to giant panda preservation and the hope for future conservation successes.
Mei Xiang, aged 25, and Tian Tian, aged 26, have been at the National Zoo since 2000. Their presence has been a source of joy and fascination for visitors and animal lovers worldwide. The couple’s first three cubs, born in the U.S. between 2005 and 2015, are currently thriving in China. Their youngest, Xiao Qi Ji, known as “Little Miracle,” holds a special place in history as he was born to the oldest giant panda ever to give birth in the United States.
The trio gained fame through the zoo’s “Giant Panda Cam,” attracting over 100 million views and endearing themselves to a global audience. Their departure symbolizes the changing dynamics in the relationship between U.S. zoos and China regarding giant panda conservation.
The panda diplomacy, which started in 1972 following President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, has seen a gradual phase-out. The return of pandas from Memphis and San Diego zoos, and now Washington, leaves only four giant pandas in the United States, located at Georgia’s Zoo Atlanta, scheduled to return to China in 2024.
As visitors like young Kimberly Blalock expressed their love and hopes for the pandas’ return, the zoo grappled with the uncertainty of whether it would host these magnificent creatures again. The pandas’ departure not only marks the end of an era for the National Zoo but also underscores the importance of international collaboration in wildlife conservation and the deep connections that form between animals and humans.