National Zoo saying goodbye to China's famous pandas

The zoo's "Panda Palooza" is a bittersweet celebration for staff and panda fans.

ByMahika Gupta
September 30, 2023, 2:01 PM

The Smithsonian's National Zoo is bidding farewell to its beloved giant pandas, heading to China before the end of the year.

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 births caused a national sensation.

On Dec. 7, the three giant pandas still at the National Zoo will be reunited with their relatives in China, and for the past week the zoo has been holding "Panda Palooza," a week-long event dedicated to letting their thousands of devoted fans a chance to see them one last time.

PHOTO: Giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji struggles to eat frozen fruit cake.
Giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji struggles to eat frozen fruit cake.
Mahika Gupta/ABC News

Many zoogoers showed up on a recent rainy Saturday to see the pandas, participate in family-friendly panda-themed events, and watch the three giant pandas devour a frozen fruit and bamboo cake.

Knowing such scenes will soon end is bittersweet for their keepers.

"After working with the pandas for so many years, now, I'm very connected to them, and I have a lot of memories with them," keeper Mariel Lally said. "So, them leaving is going to be really sad for me as it will be for all of the other giant panda keepers. But it's also something that we're really proud of. So, it's a bittersweet moment to say goodbye, because they have done so much for giant panda conservation."

"I am sad, you know, we've been able to work with these individuals, some of them 23 years. But it also means that we've been successful, and we've had a lot of wins to help save giant pandas both under human care and in the wild," Michael Brown-Palsgrove, the National Zoo's Curator of Asia Trail and Giant Pandas, told ABC News.

The National Zoo has had giant pandas since 1972, when then-President Richard Nixon was gifted a pair, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, by former Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong in exchange for a pair of arctic musk oxen -- goodwill gestures as the countries opened diplomatic relations.

After the original panda pair passed away in 1999, the National Zoo signed a contract with the China Wildlife and Conservation Association (CWCA) -- "The Giant Panda Cooperative Research and Breeding Agreement" -- and welcomed Mei Xiang and Tian Tian the next year under a 10-year contract that since then has been renewed three times.

Since 1984, Chinese wildlife organizations started lending pandas to other countries, instead of gifting them, in the interest of panda conservation.

The lending agreements allowed researchers from different nations to get involved with the science of panda conservation and raised money conservation efforts in China.

In 2016, the giant panda was taken off the list of endangered species.

The National Zoo's staff hopes its panda program will continue because of what the zoo has contributed to panda conservation.

"We actually have a whole scientific staff who also have focused on giant pandas in the wild for over fifty years as well," Brown-Palsgrove said. "We've done a lot of work to help protect habitats and enhance habitat, so setting up wildlife corridors or exploring how many pandas there are in the wild. And it's not just our researchers doing it from here we go over and are increasing capacity. We're training scientists on the ground to continue this work."

"By having giant pandas here in the United States, it's helped with panda conservation because people have been falling in love with the pandas," Lally, the giant panda keeper, said. "Most people will never see a giant panda unless they see them in a zoo. So, by us having pandas now with Mei Xiang and Tian Tian coming in 2000, so many people have been able to make connections with the pandas. And in return, they're able to help educate and support giant panda conservation."

Giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji nibbles on frozen fruit cake.Giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji struggles to eat frozen fruit cake.
Giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji nibbles on frozen fruit cake.
Mahika Gupta/ABC News

A large number of pandas have returned or are planning on being returned to China by 2024 due to the number of returns that were delayed by the pandemic.

Scotland's Edinburgh Zoo is planning on returning its giant panda pair, Tian Tian and Yang Guang, by December and Malaysia's Zoo Negara sent two giant panda cubs to China in August.

The Memphis Zoo sent back giant panda Ya Ya in April 2023, a return filled with controversy due to the unfortunate passing of Ya Ya's mate, Le Le, months before their scheduled return to China.

Once Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and Xiao Qi Ji leave for China, the only pandas remaining in the U.S. will be in Zoo Atlanta, whose contract expires at the end of 2024.

The pandas' departure during the current political tension between the U.S. and China has been difficult to ignore. U.S. and Chinese media outlets have both gestured at the giant panda as a symbol of U.S.-China relations. However, for panda advocates and the staff at the National Zoo, the pandas are not political.

"We're strictly for the animals. That's what we care about. That's where our spirit is. That's where our focus is," Tom Clemenson, U.S. Spokesperson for international panda advocacy group "Panda Voices" said. "I do find it interesting that a lot of pandas are going back home and the United States may not have any very shortly. That kind of saddens me. But I think the political link between them is kind of loose. It's not as strong as people think it is."

"Giant pandas are not political," Pamela Baker-Masson, director of communications at the National Zoo, said. "We've been doing this for 51 years, we are very close with our Chinese partners, and we work very, very well together. So, it's about that relationship, and it's about how people from not just China, the United States, but from around the world, work together with one goal and one mission."

In 2022, Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., introduced the Anti-China PANDA Act, demanding that pandas born in the U.S. be kept in the U.S. "Give freedom to the pandas and allow pandas born in the United States to stay in the United States," Mace said, but the measure never passed.

"It's important that cubs go to China, because of the breeding populations," Baker-Masson said. "These animals are managed by their genetics. We don't want inbreeding we want the greatest genetic mix possible. China's where the vast majority of pandas live right now in human care. So, when we send a cub there, with the genetics of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian that introduces new genetics into the population. That is a good thing that is a healthy and necessary thing for the survival of giant pandas."