For the first time since 1972, the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., has no giant pandas in its enclosures, after three of the animals departed for a 19-hour flight to China Wednesday.
“Goodbye, and bon voyage,” was the message from a Chinese diplomat given to the three pandas, who had been living in the nation’s capital on loan from China.
Mei Xiang, the female, was seen in a crate provided by shipping partner FedEx leaving the zoo. She was later joined by Tian Tian and their 3-year-old son, Xiao Qi Ji, in their own crates.
“The three family members are all in good health and ready for the flight,” the diplomat said. “Welcome back!”
Brandie Smith, the John and Adrienne Mars director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, called the day one of many historic moments.
“There are billions of people who have admired, celebrated, loved our giant pandas and have participated in their conservation,” Smith said, adding it has been a “hard morning” emotionally.
The zoo’s exchange agreement with the Chinese government, originally brokered by President Richard Nixon in 1972, expires Dec. 7. Ongoing negotiations to extend the agreement haven’t produced results, amid speculation from China-watchers that Beijing is gradually pulling its pandas from Western nations due to deteriorating diplomatic relations with the U.S. and other countries.
The departure from the National Zoo is happening about three weeks earlier than planned. The zoo did not disclose why. A giant “Panda Palooza farewell celebearation” took place from Sept. 23 to Oct. 1 to say farewell to “three of the zoo’s most popular residents.”
The trio is getting a police escort to Dulles International Airport in Virginia, where they will depart for China on the FedEx Panda Express.
The bears have been a wildly popular attraction and an unofficial symbol of the nation’s capital for decades. Every birthday and anniversary was an occasion for public celebration and the long-shot birth of Xiao Qi Ji in the midst of the pandemic in August 2020 drove millions of viewers to the zoo’s panda-cam.
Zoo officials say they remain hopeful they will come to a new agreement with the Chinese government. The San Diego zoo returned its pandas in 2019, and the last bear at the Memphis, Tennessee, zoo went home earlier this year. The departure of the National Zoo’s bears means that the only giant pandas left in America are at the Atlanta Zoo – and that loan agreement expires late next year.
Fox News’ Christine Rousselle and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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