After 23 years, the beloved giant pandas Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and their three-year-old cub Xiao Qi Ji have left the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, DC, and returned to China.
The departure of the Chinese pandas had all the pomp and circumstance accorded to dignitaries, with speeches from the Smithsonian National Zoo director Brandie Smith and Chinese Foreign Minister Xu Xueyuan to mark the occasion. The pandas were coaxed inside their special metal crates and loaded on FedEx vans decorated with furry black-and-white panda faces. The departure resembled a motorcade complete with police escorts, waving crowds of bystanders (some of whom had driven for hours and traveled from other states). Teams of journalists followed along until the pandas arrived at Dulles International Airport and boarded the FedEx Express Boeing 777F named the “Panda Express” for the flight to Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport in Sichuan, China.
It took weeks of practice for the pandas to enter the crates and get used to them, and accompanying the bears on the special flight were National Zoo animal care experts, including veterinarians, with the aircraft loaded with about 220 pounds of bamboo, water, biscuits, sugarcane, vegetables and fruits like pears and apples for the 19-hour flight with one quick fuel stop in Alaska.
Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived in 2000 as part of a 10-year “loan” agreement between the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute and the China Wildlife Conservation Association for a research and breeding program. The agreement extended a couple of times over the years, was supposed to end this December, but zoo officials say the age of the adult pandas necessitated the early return to China.
Americans are known for being animal lovers, and so many have become emotionally attached to pandas, who are also regarded as spirit animals that symbolize luck, peace, and positivity. In fact, many – kids and adults alike – were unashamedly crying as they bid farewell to the three pandas, saying they would miss the animals, especially the young cub Xiao Qi Ji, whose cute antics were streamed online through the National Zoo’s Giant Panda Cam. Fans of the animals also expressed their fondness and sadness by writing messages on giant panda farewell cards along Connecticut Avenue.
The departure of the pandas is seen by many as the end of an era known as “panda diplomacy” that began in February 1972 during the historic China visit of President Richard Nixon. According to several accounts, First Lady Pat Nixon was seated beside Chinese Premier Chou Enlai during dinner when she saw a cigarette case decorated with two giant pandas and remarked, “They’re cute! I love them!” Chou replied to her, “I’ll give you some.”
True enough, a pair of 18-month-old giant pandas arrived at Andrews Air Force Base in April 1972 and were transported to the National Zoo amid very tight security. Named Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, the pandas’ arrival created a sensation, with photographers and over 20,000 visitors flocking to see them. At the same time, other zoos strongly lobbied to become the new home for the pandas, who also became symbols of the warming friendship between the United States and China.
Over the years, there have been several other pandas in the US, such as the ones in San Diego and the Memphis Zoo, but they have also been returned. The remaining four pandas are in Zoo Atlanta, but these will also be going back to China next year. Not many are aware that the upkeep of the pandas is expensive, like $500,000 a year paid by the National Zoo. At the same time, Zoo Atlanta spent over $7 million to build the panda habitat and has since given more than $16 million for their panda program that started in 1999. The agreement also stipulates that China owns the pandas, and any offspring must be returned when they turn four years old. Over the years, the other children of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian – Tai Shan, Bao Bao, and Bei Bei – have since been returned to China.
Once considered an endangered species, the number of pandas has increased, and they are now designated as “vulnerable,” obviously with help from American “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,” National Zoo director Brandie Smith noted. For instance, Xiao Qi Ji (whose name means “Little Miracle”) was conceived through artificial insemination since Mei Xiang was already 22 – considered old in panda age – when she gave birth in 2020.
Beijing admits that the giant pandas are used as instruments of public diplomacy and serve their “major and political-diplomatic needs,” a tradition dating back several centuries. According to a study on panda diplomacy by Oxford University experts, China leases the pandas to nations with trade deals. Aside from the US, other countries that also have panda loan agreements include Scotland, Australia, Denmark, Germany, Russia, and, just recently, Qatar.
But many loan agreements with Western nations are soon expiring, and there is no indication that they will be renewed, prompting observations that this indicates the worsening relations between the US and China.
Giant pandas are unique to China and are good instruments of public diplomacy. Instead of developing artificial islands into military bases, perhaps China can turn them into sanctuaries so they can send more giant pandas to many other places, including the Philippines. Who knows, someday we can have a “peaceful panda world.”