In a bittersweet moment, two beloved giant pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, along with their cub, Xiao Qi Ji, have officially begun their return journey to China after more than two decades at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in the United States.
Their departure marks the end of a significant chapter in the history of panda diplomacy and signifies the culmination of a research agreement that was set to expire.
These remarkable pandas, cherished by millions of visitors, are embarking on a 19-hour flight to a panda reserve in Chengdu, located in China’s Sichuan province.
Their mode of transportation, a 777F plane named the “FedEx Panda Express,” highlights the extraordinary care and effort taken to ensure their safe and comfortable journey.
The presence of giant pandas in the United States can be traced back to 1972 when the U.S. received its first pandas from China. This exchange was inspired by the deep appreciation of pandas, with then-President Richard Nixon expressing his love for these endearing creatures. Over the years, pandas have come to symbolize goodwill between China and the United States, with their stay in the U.S. governed by a unique agreement between the two nations.
Panda experts and Conservation biologists have pointed out that Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, now in their later years, are at an age when they should return to their native land. Melissa Songer, a Conservation biologist at the Smithsonian National Zoo, stressed the importance of ensuring the well-being of these pandas, saying, “They are at the age when they should be in China. I don’t want to have a panda pass away outside of China.”
With the departure of Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and Xiao Qi Ji, the Atlanta Zoo will become the sole U.S. institution housing giant pandas, though they are also set to return to China shortly. The National Zoo has expressed its intention to request a new pair of pandas from Chinese officials, but there is speculation that rising tensions between the U.S. and China may complicate future agreements related to panda diplomacy.
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This article by Trinity Sparke was first published by One Green Planet on 9 November 2023. Image Credit :Karel Cerny/Shutterstock.