The folks in the nation's capital waved a tearful goodbye to their fluffy panda pals — Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and the adorable Xiao Qi Ji — as these panda celebrities embarked on their journey back to China.
After 23 years of delighting visitors at the National Zoo, these pandas, who were on loan from China, are off to continue their panda adventures and contribute to the panda research and captive breeding program.
The Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute announced the pandas’ departure on Wednesday morning, saying they will embark on a trans-Pacific journey from Washington, D.C., to Chengdu, China, which will span approximately 19 hours and include a brief refueling layover in Anchorage, Alaska.
“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," said Brandie Smith, the John and Adrienne Mars director of Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute,in a press release.
Mei Xiang, 25, and Tian Tian, 26, who arrived in Washington, D.C., in 2000, had cubs in 2005, 2013, and 2015, which were later sent to China. In 2020, Mei Xiang, the oldest panda in the U.S. to give birth, had Xiao Qi Ji through artificial insemination using frozen-thawed semen.
Their departure makes Atlanta the only place to house pandas in the U.S. after Zoo Atlanta extended their contract for panda twins Ya Lun and Xi Lun.
Originally, the twins were supposed to go to China when they grew up as part of the loan agreement for adult pandas Lun Lun and Yang Yang (Ya and Xi's parents), but due to the pandemic, this travel never happened, and now all four pandas will remain in Atlanta until early 2024.
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