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Earlier than planned: National Zoo says goodbye to pandas

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WASHINGTON — After more than 50 years, panda diplomacy is coming to an end earlier than expected.

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On Wednesday, Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji were loaded into animal crates and taken to a special FedEx plane at Dulles International Airport for a 19-hour trip to China. The flight is being called the Panda Express, The New York Times reported.

The plane features a panda and Smithsonian branding alongside the FedEx logo, WRC reported. Zookeepers from the National Zoo joined the pandas for the trip.

Details of the move were not released because of security reasons, The Washington Post reported. Originally they were slated to be returned in December, then that was moved up to mid-November, The Associated Press reported last month.

🐼✈️❤️ Giant pandas Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji began their journey to China this morning. They departed the...

Posted by Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute on Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Zoo workers are heartbroken to see the pandas leave.

“The one-on-one relationship is probably the best part of my job,” curator of pandas Laurie Thompson told WRC. “They know us really well. They are comforted by us and they trust us. So in a time of stress when they don’t know what’s going on, I suspect they will come and sit next to me and tell him he’s a good boy.”

She said she has been focused on getting the animals ready for the trip, so the emotions will come later.

“(I will) have my breakdown” when the pandas leave the plane, she told WRC.

“I’m excited for their future,” zoo director Brandie Smith told WRC. “Although I’m a little bit heartbroken for us.”

The Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., has been one of the U.S. homes to pandas since they came to the U.S. in 1972 after President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China, CNN reported. After that trip, the country’s Chairman Mao Zedong gave the U.S. two giant pandas, which were welcomed by first lady Pat Nixon.

“They will be enjoyed by the millions of people who come from across the country to visit the nation’s capital each year.” the first lady said at the time of their arrival, CNN reported.

The two pandas were Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, The New York Times reported.

Other zoos eventually got their own pandas to put on display, including Zoo Atlanta, where visitors will still be able to see their pandas until at least next year when the agreement expires. There is no indication that the agreement will be extended.

San Diego Zoo had pandas until 2019, while the Memphis Zoo had a panda until April, the Times reported.

China still owned the pandas that lived in the U.S., as well as any offspring that were produced. The zoos also have to pay for the conservation of giant pandas in China.

The National Zoo paid $500,000 annually, while Zoo Atlanta paid in excess of $16 million since 1999.

For Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji, the Times reported their return is due to biology or “panda time,” saying that they are at an age where they should be returned to China. Mei Xiang is 25, Tian Tian is 26 and their cub, Xiao Qi Ji, is 3. Typically cubs are returned to China before they are 4 years old and adults go back when they’re considered elderly.

At one point there were 15 giant pandas in the U.S., but with worsening relations with China over the past few years, the pandas have been returned to the socialist country.

Once Atlanta’s pandas are returned, the only panda in the Americas will be Xin Xin in Mexico City, CNN reported. The 33-year-old panda is owned by Mexico, which is using the animal as a draw for tourists.

“For the time being, come to Mexico!” director general of the Chapultepec Zoo Fernando Gual Sill said. “In Mexico City we have the fortune to have (a panda) and to see it and to enjoy it!”

As for the Smithsonian’s pandas, once they land they will be taken to a nature preserve in the mountains of the Sichuan Province where 150 other pandas currently live, the Times reported.

This is the first time in 23 years that the panda exhibit at the Smithsonian National Zoo will be empty, according to WRC.