3 Giant Pandas From The National Zoo Have Begun The Long Journey Back To China After 23 Years In The U.S.

Photo by: Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

First thing this morning, the panda team at Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZCBI) finalized preparations for Giant pandas Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and Xiao Qi Ji to begin their journey back home to China. They boarded a custom FedEx Panda Express Boeing 777F that will travel approximately 19 hours to Chengdu, China, with a brief refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska.

Each panda had an individual, custom travel crate, which they have been acclimating to over the past several weeks. The three pandas were moved from the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat to custom trucks before departing NZCIB. Brandie Smith and John and Adrienne Mars, directors of NZCBI, were joined by Minister Xu Xueyuan from the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, and animal care staff to say goodbye.

The specialized travel crates are made of steel and plexiglass and weigh approximately 800 pounds each. Assistant curator of giant pandas Laurie Thompson, animal keeper Mariel Lally, and supervisory veterinary medical officer James Steeil will make the trip with them. The NZCBI team will continuously monitor Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and Xiao Qi Ji during the long journey. NZCBI staff are traveling 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.

Upon arrival in Chengdu, the pandas’ new keepers from the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda will meet them and drive them to ShenShuPing Campus in Wolong where they will stay in quarantine for approximately 30 days. NZCBI’s team will follow and remain with the pandas for a few days while they acclimate to their new home. Xiao Qi Ji will enter the giant panda breeding program when he reaches sexual maturity between 6 and 7 years old.

Mei Xiang, who is 25 years old, and 26-year-old Tian Tian arrived in Washington, D.C., in 2000, the second pair of giant pandas to live at NZCBI. Their first three surviving cubs Tai Shan (b. 2005), Bao Bao (b. 2013), and Bei Bei (b. 2015) are back home in China. Tai Shan and Bao Bao have welcomed cubs of their own. With the birth of Xiao Qi Ji (“Little Miracle” in English) in 2020 when Mei Xiang was 22 years old, Mei Xiang became the oldest giant panda to give birth in the United States and the second oldest documented in the world. Xiao Qi Ji’s birth was the first outside of China from artificial insemination with frozen-thawed semen which demonstrates the value and key role of systematic biobanking in species conservation.

NZCBI entered into its Giant Panda Cooperative Research and Breeding Agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association in December of 2000 when Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived at NZCBI. The agreement between the two organizations is now up and that is why the pandas are headed back home to China.

There is still much controversy regarding programs between zoos that ship captive wildlife around the world. This causes tremendous stress and risks the animals’ lives during transport. Thankfully, through eduction, there is a growing movement not to support the captivity of wildlife, and instead, help to protect species in their natural habitat.

Only an estimated 1,850 giant pandas remain in the wild today, and about 300 live in captivity. The wild panda species’ range once included China, Myanmar (Burma), and Vietnam. Today, their range only extends to pockets of bamboo forests in western China, according to National Geographic.

The wild panda population remains at-risk of extinction due to much of their habitat being threatened by poorly-planned infrastructure projects, such as dams, roads, and railways increasingly fragmenting and isolating panda populations. This prevents pandas from finding new bamboo forests and potential mates. Forest loss also reduces pandas’ access to the bamboo they need to survive, according to World Wildlife Fund.

You can help all animals and our planet by choosing compassion on your plate and in your glass. #GoVeg

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