WASHINGTON, D.C. (KFOR/Storyful) – Two giant pandas that have called the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute home since 2000, are on a 19-hour flight to China, along with their cub and hundreds of pounds of food!
The giant pandas must get hungry because the three are sharing “a dedicated and custom-decaled FedEx Panda Express Boeing 777F aircraft” with “approximately 220 pounds of bamboo, 8 pounds of leaf-eater biscuits, 5 pounds of low-starch biscuits, 6 pounds of apples, 5 pounds of carrots, 6 pounds of sweet potatoes, 3 pounds of sugar cane, 1 pound of pears and 1 pound of cooked squash,” according to the Zoo.
Several handlers will make sure the animals are well-cared for onboard, and are returned safely to their destination in Chengdu, China, where the trio will be quarantined for 30 days.
Zoo staff have been getting Mei Xiange, age 25, Tian Tian, age 26, and Xiao Qi Ji, age 3, used to their 800-pound travel crates over the past few months. Caretakers have been walking each bear through each crate, leading up to closing the doors for a brief amount of time.
In a press release, Zoo officials stated Mei Xiang became the oldest giant panda in the US to give birth, and the second oldest documented giant panda in the world to give birth at 22-years-old to Xiao Qi Ji in 2020. The cub’s name translates to “little miracle.”
The Zoo states, “Xiao Qi Ji’s birth was the first outside of China from artificial insemination with frozen-thawed semen only and demonstrates the value and key role of systematic biobanking in species conservation.”
Video at the top of this story shows Zoo goers saying their final farewells, before each panda was placed inside their crate, then hauled off to the Dulles International Airport in three separate Fedex trucks.
Mei Xiang and Tian Tian also have three previous cubs, Tai Shan, Bao Bao, and Bei Bei, all of which are said to be thriving in China.
Per the agreement with China, which was created more than 50 years ago during the Nixon Administration, giant pandas were lent to the US for conservation purposes. The pandas are returned to China when they reach old age, and cubs are returned when they reach the age of 3 or 4. The exchange agreement expires December 7.
According to the Associated Press, “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.”
China has sent 65 pandas to 19 countries over the years. In the US, the San Diego Zoo returned its pandas in 2019, the Memphis Zoo returned its panda earlier this year, followed by the November 8th departure of all three bears in Washington, DC. The Atlanta Zoo is the only remaining US zoo with giant pandas. Their agreement expires in late 2024.
Zoo officials say the international breeding program produced phenomenal results: “The unified effort to create and share knowledge is saving this species from extinction. Giant pandas are no longer on the endangered species list and are now classified as “vulnerable” in the wild by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. There are an estimated 1,800 in the wild.”
Zoo officials are hopeful the Chinese government will eventually create a new agreement for giant panda conservation programs in the US.