Say Goodbye to Tian Tian and Family

Giant panda, as well as mate Mei Xiang and cub Xiao Qi Ji are heading back to China on Wednesday
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 8, 2023 9:50 AM CST
America's Giant Panda Population Is Dropping by 3
Giant panda Tian Tian roams in his enclosure at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington on Sept. 28.   (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

For nearly a quarter century, giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian have called the Smithsonian's National Zoo in DC home, part of a "panda diplomacy" initiative with China established during the Nixon years that involved loaning pandas to the US for breeding and research purposes. Now, the two pandas, who arrived at the zoo in 2000, as well as Xiao Qi Ji, their cub born in 2020, are heading back to their homeland. CBS News reports that the trio will be shipped back to China on Wednesday afternoon, with the Smithsonian noting in a release that the animals will be delivered by forklift onto FedEx trucks, which will then carry them to Dulles International Airport.

From there, the pandas will board a Boeing 777F dubbed the "FedEx Panda Express," which is set to depart the US around 1pm ET. Panda handlers and a veterinarian will accompany the pandas during the 19-hour trip, keeping them sated with water and favorite nibbles like bamboo, sugar cane, and leaf eater biscuits, per Axios. Once they arrive in China, they'll be delivered to the China Wildlife Conservation Association in Chengdu, in the province of Sichuan. CNN notes that the pandas' return brings to a close more than a half-century of pandas at the National Zoo.

Although zoo workers are deeming this development a "hiatus" in the program, China hasn't indicated that more pandas will eventually be sent back over to the US. Some think they know how to make sure that happens. "Pat Nixon got the pandas here, and Jill Biden should go and get these pandas back for us," a National Zoo visitor tells CNN. After this set of pandas head home, just four giant pandas that are part of the program, all at Zoo Atlanta, will remain in the US. They're set to be returned to China sometime next year. (More giant pandas stories.)

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