The three giant pandas from the National Zoo are now on a 19-hour flight from Dulles International Airport.
The Boeing 777 FedEx cargo plane to Chengdu, China, left before 1 p.m. with Mei Xiang and Tian Tian and their cub Xiao Qi Ji on board.
The Smithsonian announced early Wednesday that the giant pandas would leave on Wednesday, roughly a week earlier than originally thought.
The departure ends an era at the National Zoo. Giant pandas have been there for the last 51 years.
Through the years, the giant pandas have been the stars of the zoo and have been part of what’s been known as “panda diplomacy.”
According to the zoo, after breakfast, each panda entered a custom travel crate. The crates, made of steel and plexiglass, were then moved by forklift out of the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat and loaded on to FedEx trucks for the journey to the airport.
Mei Xiang is heading to the truck first. She’s inside the crate you’re seeing here. pic.twitter.com/Em5gFt97uc— Joy Wang (@Joy7News) November 8, 2023
Roughly 220 pounds of bamboo was loaded for the pandas to munch on during their trip. The zoo said the pandas’ munchies also include 8 pounds of leaf-eater biscuits, 5 pounds of low-starch biscuits, 6 pounds of apples, 5 pounds of carrots, 6 pounds of sweet potatoes, 3 pounds of sugar cane, 1 pound of pears, and 1 pound of cooked squash.
Going along on the flight are assistant curator of giant pandas Laurie Thompson, animal keeper Mariel Lally, and supervisory veterinary medical officer James Steeil.
“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,” said National Zoo Director Brandi Smith in remarks Wednesday morning. “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 DC.”
Smith said Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and Xiao Qi Ji leave behind a tremendous legacy. “It is exciting and humbling that people around the world have followed these pandas, shared in our joys and rooted for our success. I am incredibly proud of our animal care experts and researchers, whose observations and research in giant panda biology, behavior, reproduction, health, and native habitat have helped move giant pandas off the endangered species list. As this chapter of our giant panda program closes, we remain committed to the conservation of this species and look forward to continued collaboration with our Chinese colleagues,” she said.
Minister Xu Xueyuan from the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, who spoke at the zoo, before the pandas left Wednesday said, “The three family members are well and ready for the flight.” She added that as a government official, she welcomed them back to China, and that conservation efforts for the giant pandas would continue.
Once in China, the pandas’ new keepers from the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda will meet them on the tarmac. The zoo said they will be driven to ShenShuPing Campus in Wolong and will remain in quarantine for approximately 30 days. The National Zoo’s team will stay for a few days as the pandas get used to their new home.
In three or four years, Xiao Qi Ji will enter China’s giant panda breeding program, following in the footsteps of his siblings.
A Long Panda History in DC
The first pandas to come to the U.S. were Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing in 1972. They came after President Richard Nixon visited China. He was the first president to do so. Ling-Ling died in 1992 at age 23. Hsing-Hsing was euthanized in 1999 at age 28.
The two pandas would pave the way for the latest panda couple. Mei Xiang, 25, and Tian Tian, 26, came to DC in 2000. Mei Xiang would give birth to Tia Shan in 2005, Bao Bao in 2013, and Bei Bei in 2015. Three-year-old Xiao Qi Ji, who was born at the zoo on August 21, 2020.
As part of the breeding and research agreement between the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute and the China Wildlife and Conservation Association, the pandas would be housed at the zoo but would return to China. Tai Shan was moved to Wolong National Nature Reserve in China in 2010, per the agreement. Bao Bao returned to China in February 2017. Bei Bei departed for China in November 2019.
The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute has been one of the world’s most recognized panda conservation programs. The zoo said the program, in collaboration with Chinese colleagues, “has made significant contributions to the global knowledge of giant panda biology, behavior, reproduction, health and habitat.”
The shared knowledge about giant pandas, the zoo said, is saving the species from extinction. They are no longer endangered and are now classified as “vulnerable.” In the wild, there are about 1,800 giant pandas in the world.
Feature image of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian courtesy The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute
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