Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and their baby Xiao Qi Ji are returning to China on a particular FedEx flight. Behind closed doors, forklifts transported the pandas in substantial white containers to waiting vehicles stocked with several bushels of bamboo for the trip.
Staff members from the zoo accompanied them. Around 1 p.m., the pandas boarded the “Panda Express” from Washington, DC, their home of over a decade, for the first stop in Anchorage, Alaska. On the approximately 20-hour voyage, they will be accompanied by two zookeepers from the Smithsonian and a veterinarian.
The only other Chinese pandas in the United States are the four who live in Atlanta and will be returned to China when their contract expires in 2024.
The National Zoo’s tamarins, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, arrived there in 2000 for a planned 10-year stay. The original Smithsonian-China Wildlife Conservation Association contract was set to expire this week but was extended many times. The pair had four surviving cubs: Tai Shan, Bao Bao, Bei Bei, and Xiao Qi Ji.
In 2012, they lost multiple cubs, including one only a week old.
Xiao Qi Ji’s younger siblings left Taiwan for China when they were young. According to the National Zoo, Tai Shan left the Washington, DC zoo in 2010, his sister Bao Bao returned home in 2017, and Bei Bei returned in 2019. Recently, Bao Bao gave birth to her pups.
Though it was a “sad morning,” National Zoo Director Brandie Smith stated, “This is one more step in 50 years of a successful giant panda conservation campaign.” She expressed the hope that the pandas will return to the US as a new contract has not been drawn out. As a representative of the Chinese government, Xu Xueyuan wished the pandas a safe journey and shared her joy at the occasion.
The National Zoo’s $2.5 million panda habitat renovation project may also provide temporary housing for other species.
In 1972, in honor of President Richard Nixon’s visit to China, the zoo got its first Chinese panda.