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3 pandas bid US goodbye

By Zhao Huanxin in Washington | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2023-11-09 12:33

A crate carrying giant panda Mei Xiang is moved out of the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC, on Wednesday. All three giant pandas headed back to China on Wednesday. Zhao Huanxin / China Daily

Three giant pandas at the National Zoo in Washington, including a pair who came 23 years ago and their 3-year-old son, headed back to China on Wednesday, an "unbearable" moment for millions of their fans who have usually cited the bears as the reason to visit.

At noon on Wednesday, before the steel and plexiglass crate that contains Xiao Qi Ji, the panda junior, was about to be loaded onto a FedEx plane at Dulles International Airport, the little one seemed to be waving his paws at the window, to the awe-struck fans who had followed him from the Zoo.

Three Zoo staffers, including assistant curator of giant pandas Laurie Thompson, an animal and a supervisory veterinary medical officer traveled with the trio, along with a bonanza of the pandas' favorites: about 220 pounds of bamboo, eight pounds of leaf-eater biscuits, six pounds of apples, and even a pound of cooked squash.

After a 19-hour plane ride aboard the "Giant Panda Express", including a brief refueling stop in Alaska, Xiao Qi Ji and his parents Mei Xiang, aged 25, and Tian Tian, aged 26, will arrive at Chengdu, to be greeted by keepers from the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda.

They will drive them toShenshuping base in Wolong National Nature Reserve, Southwest China's Sichuan province, where they will stay in quarantine for approximately 30 days.

For Zoo visitors from the US capital and beyond, saying good-bye to the pandas is not easy.

"Dear Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and Xiao Qi Ji - I have dreaded this post for quite awhile, living in denial and hoping this day would somehow never come. Because saying goodbye to you is the hardest thing I've ever had to do," wrote a Zoo-goer identified as DC Panda Girl.

"You may never know it, but you have given me so much over the years. You gave me a reason to smile, to laugh and to find joy, even in some of my darkest moments. You provided comfort and support in a way that humans simply could not," the letter continued.

Brandie Smith, director of the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, said that as the family of three departed for their new home in China, they've left behind a "tremendous" legacy in Washington DC.

"It is exciting and humbling that people around the world have followed these pandas, shared in our joys and rooted for our success," Smith said. "As this chapter of our giant panda program closes, we remain committed to the conservation of this species and look forward to continued collaboration with our Chinese colleagues."

Asked how to cope with the situation of having an empty panda habitat at the Zoo, Smith said she would immediately think about the future – working with colleagues to bring pandas back.

"I will say that they have to wait the same as I do until we know that information for sure," Smith told China Daily when asked how she would answer the visitors' question about when they can expect new pandas.

"We have a great relationship with our colleagues in China and we look forward to working together to bring them back," she said.

More than 2 million visitors travel to the Zoo every year, and giant pandas are at the top on their wish and watch list.

In an interview with China Daily in August, Smith said the absence of the bears may mean that the other animals will get "a little extra" attention.

In 2000, China and the US signed a Giant Panda Cooperative Research and Breeding Agreement for the second pair of giant pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, to stay at the zoo for a decade since Dec 6 that year.

The loan pact was renewed twice, each time for a five-year extension until Dec 7, 2020. It was then extended for another three years.

Since collaboration between China and the Smithsonian's National Zoo began in 2000, the two sides have worked "closely and fruitfully" on giant panda conservation and research, said Xu Xueyuan, minister of the Chinese Embassy in the United States.

"The sheer fact that so many of us are gathering here, so early in the morning, to say farewell to the giant pandas returning to China, speaks for itself the unique charm of these adorable creatures," Xu said at a see-off ceremony at the Zoo.

"Giant pandas belong to China. Giant pandas also belong to this world. China will continue to work closely with cooperation partners, including the United States, on the conservation and research of endangered species and biodiversity protection," the diplomat said.

From births and first steps to munching bamboo and playtime in the snow, the Giant Panda Cam at the Zoo has connected fans across the world to amazing moments featuring Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and their cubs, the Zoo said in a release.

Since its launch, the Giant Panda Cam has had more than 100 million page-views, according to the Zoo statistics.

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