It’s a day thousands of visitors to the National Zoo have been dreading for months, if not years. The zoo’s famous pandas leave DC, walk up Connecticut Avenue and board a specially equipped FedEx plane bound for China.
Giant pandas have been a popular game here since the original duo arrived in the 1970s. Wednesday is not the first time we have seen pandas from the region, but it is the first time in 23 years that the panda exhibit at the zoo has been empty.
In opening remarks marking the start of the panda’s journey, National Wildlife Director Brandie Smith said “it’s been a tough morning.” He spoke in front of the zoo’s Asia Trail and the recently released panda enclosure. Giant Panda Cam streamed an empty hammock.
“It’s an exciting moment because this is another step in 50 years of a successful panda conservation program, and hopefully the start of another 50 years,” Smith said. “Please know that the future is bright for giant pandas. We are committed to our program, and we look forward to celebrating with you all when the pandas return to DC”
Xu Xueyuan, the Chinese ambassador, had a farewell message for the three pandas, Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and Xiao Qi Ji.
“As an expert in Washington, I say goodbye and bon voyage. As a Chinese government official, I say welcome,” Xueyuan said.
The crowds that came to see the pandas before they left in November, ended up seeing the pandas leaving the zoo.
“We wish them all the best on their journey,” said a woman who planned to see the pandas today.
A Minnesota family said they were disappointed to find the zoo closed this morning. One of the family members, a little boy who was holding a panda softie called “Panda Panda Panda” said that he likes pandas.
“I will cry when they leave,” she said.
Others told News4 that they saw the news and wanted to say goodbye.
“I felt I had to say goodbye to DC … who is part of our family,” said the DC man.
Stay tuned to News4 so you don’t miss a step of the pandas’ journey. Watch live on this page, on our mobile apps and on all our streaming channels
Here’s a creative video featuring panda Mei Xiang being wheeled out of the DC Zoo.
Mei Xiang was the first panda to be loaded onto the white FedEx crane and onto the truck around 8 a.m. Tian Tian followed close behind. Xiao Qi Ji was carried to his crane at about 9:15 am
Crates are large and will be moved like heavy, fragile machinery. The crates include air vents, arrows pointing up and the words “Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute” on the side.
In specially marked trucks the pandas are escorted by a police car – perfect for the president. They left the zoo on Connecticut Avenue around 9:30 a.m. to head to Dulles International Airport.
The Boeing 777 carrying the pandas, also known as the FedEx “Panda Express” flight, flew from Memphis and landed shortly after the pandas left the zoo. Panda fans were there to witness this moment.
The flight can be tracked here using the number N886FD. It will depart from the airport in the afternoon. They will stop in Alaska to refuel before continuing to China.
When they left the zoo, signs went up indicating that the panda enclosure was closed. The panda cam was removed from the site, with the following message in its place:
“Thank you for visiting the Giant Panda Cam page. Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji have left the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute and are now on their way to China,” the site reads.
The pandas will have kilos of bamboo on the trip as well as apples and pears. Two Smithsonian zookeepers and a veterinarian will join them on the 19-hour journey, to ensure the pandas are well cared for.
Here’s what to expect as they go, the reactions of those in the District and beyond – and a look back at our panda history (yes, including all those surprised, adorable babies).
The National Zoo has confirmed that Wednesday is the day the pandas will leave their home in the US to build a new home.
The pandas will be loaded onto a special FedEx truck Wednesday morning and taken to Dulles International Airport in Virginia. From there, they will be loaded onto a special Boeing 777 FedEx plane, complete with panda and Smithsonian logos, for the journey back to China, where the two pandas – Mei Xiang and Tian Tian – were born.
“Pandas, zookeepers and flight attendants will then travel on a trans-Pacific route from Washington, DC, to Chengdu, China,” zoo officials said. The flight will include a brief refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska.
Tian Tian, 26 years old; Mei Xiang, 25, and their youngest offspring, Xiao Qi Ji, 3 years old, will be arriving at the China Wildlife Conservation Association.
It’s actually “a panda base, if you will,” according to Bryan Amaral, senior curator at the National Zoo.
“It’s a place where they have a lot of giant pandas, very similar to what you can see – how our giant pandas live here, very similar to that,” Amaral said. “They have pandas that are much bigger than us. Where we have elephants and, you know, all kinds of other things, they just have pandas.”
The panda enclosure will undergo a $2.5 million renovation after the pandas leave, Smith said. The zoo expects to complete renovations in the next eight to 10 months, and may move some animals into temporary enclosures.
After today, the last two pandas in the US will be at Zoo Atlanta.
‘My heart aches for us’
DC residents have been lamenting the loss of pandas since the National Zoo announced its “Panda Palooza” event in August.
“I’m so sad; I’m going to miss her so much,” said Rachel Weidner, a visitor from Philadelphia to visit Xiao Qi Ji on her last birthday in the US.
“But I know you will be treated well,” she said. “And I know that I can still follow him, maybe even visit him one day.”
Weidner wore an all-black-and-white outfit during his visit, wearing a headband with small panda heads, hoping the pandas could see the spirit nearby and “come to say hello” while at the zoo.
Those who live in the DMV know they had something special with these pandas. As News4’s Eun Yang – a big panda fan in our newsroom – said, “Seeing these roly-poly-black-white-floof balls at the National Zoo enjoying life has been a joy for me. And I look forward to the time when, too, I can just play in my yard, sleep whenever and wherever I want, and eat and eat again.”
“They remind me that even in DC you can be free and carefree,” said Yang.
The panda keepers are sad to see them go, even though they know the pandas will be well cared for in their new home.
“One-on-one relationships are probably the best part of my job,” said pandas manager Laurie Thompson. “They know us well, they are comforted by us and they trust us. So in times of stress, I don’t know what is going on, I suspect they will come and sit next to me and tell him that he is a good boy. .”
Thompson said he’s focused on getting the pandas ready to travel — and “will have my distraction” after the pandas disembark from their flight in China.
“I’m excited about their future,” Zoo Director Brandie Smith told News4. “Although I have a heavy heart, my people.”
History of giant pandas in the Region
Since the beginning of the research exchange program, the pandas have served as a form of soft dialogue between China and the US The zoo’s first pair of pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, were gifted in 1972 to commemorate the historic visit of President -Richard Nixon. to China that year.
Those pandas died in the 1990s, leaving the cubs extinct. But Mei Xiang and Tian Tian changed that zoo’s luck.
The second couple has called the zoo home since 2000, when it was loaned to the Smithsonian Institution by the Chinese government. An agreement with China in 2000 “stipulated that (Mei Xiang and Tian Tian) would stay at the Zoo for 10 years in exchange for $10 million,” according to the zoo’s website.
Ten years later, the Smithsonian and the China Wildlife Conservation Association signed a new Giant Panda Cooperative Research and Breeding Agreement in January 2011, which said the pandas would stay until December 2015. each previous contract expired.
But no more extensions.
Previous panda walk
Over the years, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian gave birth to four surviving cubs amid several losses. Starting with Tai Shan, born in 2005, the cubs became the first to grow up at the National Zoo after decades of lost hope.
One after the other, the roly-poly kids entertained the guests and Panda Cam viewers with their antics.
The three oldest children each immigrated to China when they were a few years old.
Tai Shan took off in 2010, much to the dismay of the District’s residents.
Bao Bao, her younger sister, returned in 2017 and settled into her new home quickly, according to the Associated Press.
“According to his nature, Bao Bao was very independent and started taking food from his new owner immediately,” said a Smithsonian zookeeper who accompanied the panda to China in 2017.
Bei Bei, the third surviving child, returned back in 2013, arriving safely after a 16-hour direct flight packed with street snacks such as bamboo, apples, sweet potatoes, leafy biscuits and water.
Why are the pandas walking now?
The short answer is that this year is the expiration date of the research agreement contract between the US and China. But the long answer is more complicated than that.
The pandas left DC at a time when, according to the Associated Press, there is a large trend for China to withdraw its pandas from many western zoos as their agreements expire. It comes as diplomatic tensions escalate between Beijing and several western governments.
National Zoo officials remain tight-lipped about the possibility of renewing or extending the agreement, and repeated attempts by News4 and The Associated Press to comment on the status of the negotiations did not receive a response.
Dennis Wilder, executive director of Georgetown University’s Initiative for US-China Dialogue on Global Issues, called the practice “punitive panda diplomacy” when he spoke to the AP. He noted that two other American zoos have lost their pandas in recent years, while zoos in Scotland and Australia are facing similar departures with no signs of renewal of their loan agreements.
Outside of US-China diplomacy, the discussions are researcher-to-researcher and not politically motivated, Smith, the director of the National Zoo, told News4 in August.
“We’re a team of scientists; we’re a team of animal people,” Smith said. “This is not a political discussion. This is a discussion entirely between colleagues talking about, what is best for the system as a whole, and, what would be best for each individual animal?”
Although the zoo wouldn’t be the same without our giant friends to roll around eating bamboo, at least we have Basil to comfort us.
The Associated Press and Carissa DiMargo contributed to this report.