After more than two decades of “panda diplomacy,” Washington’s popular pandas were returning to China on Wednesday.
The Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s three existing pandas, Mei Jiang (mei-shong), Tian Tian (ti-yen ti-yen) and Xiao Qi Jie (xiau-chi-ji), prepare to be loaded into special crates on Wednesday morning, 19 it was done. One-hour air travel on the FedEx “Giant Panda Express” to Chengdu, China.
They’ll be accompanied by animal care experts and 220 pounds of fresh bamboo, their favorite food.
But because they’re in crates, the pandas, who’ve delighted zoogoers with their slow-moving antics over the years, won’t be visible to those wanting to say a final farewell.
Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived in Washington in 2000, and their fourth cub, Xiao Qi Ji, was born in 2020. Xiao Qi Ji’s siblings were sent to China when each of them was 2 or 3 years old, after their birth caused a national sensation.
The National Zoo has been breeding giant pandas since 1972, when President Richard Nixon received a pair of Arctic musk deer from Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong in exchange for a pair of Arctic musk deer – a goodwill gesture to the countries that established diplomatic relations.
Following the death of the original panda pair in 1999, the National Zoo signed an “Agreement on Cooperation in Research and Breeding of Giant Pandas” with the China Wildlife and Conservation Association (CWCA) – and welcomed Mei Xiang and Tian Tian the following year under a 10-year a contract that has since been extended three times.
Beginning in 1984, Chinese wildlife organizations began lending pandas to other countries rather than giving them as gifts, in the interest of panda conservation. With Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and Xiao Qi Ji leaving for China, the only pandas remaining in the U.S. will be at Zoo Atlanta, whose contract expires at the end of 2024.
Their departure comes shortly before the White House announced that President Joe Biden would meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping later this month during an economic summit in San Francisco amid tensions between the two countries.
The pandas’ return was originally scheduled for December, then was pushed back to November 15, and it was unclear why it was pushed back to this week. “Giant pandas are not political,” Pamela Baker-Masson, communications director at the National Zoo, said in an earlier interview. “We have been doing this for 51 years, we are very close to our Chinese partners and we cooperate very well. So it’s about these relationships and how people, not just from China, from the United States, but from all over the world, work together with one goal and one mission.
But zoo director Brandie Smith, asked in a recent interview whether there had been any attempts to extend the panda contract, did not answer directly. “We focus on giant panda reproduction and the types of behavior associated with it. So we knew that pandas would return to China after their breeding season to live out their golden years in their homelands,” she said. ABC News. “So our plan was always to send them to China at this time.”