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Farewell, Pandas

Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian National Zoo sent its pandas to China after a lending agreement with the Chinese government expired.

Three panels, each showing a different panda.

Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

From left to right, National Zoo pandas Mei Xiang, Xiao Qi Ji, and Tian Tian.

On November 8, officials at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., loaded their three giant pandas—Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and their youngest offspring, Xiao Qi Ji—into crates and sent them to an airport, where they boarded a plane bound for China. Now, for the first time in 50 years, there are no pandas at the zoo.

China had lent male panda Tian Tian and female panda Mei Xiang to the zoo in 2000 as part of a panda breeding program. The pair of pandas were supposed to stay for a decade, but the agreement was extended to the end of 2023. The agreement also stated that any cubs the two pandas produced had to be returned to China by the age of 4. The zoo has already sent three of the pair’s cubs to China.

China, which is home to the world’s only wild giant pandas, started sending the black and white bears to the United States in 1972. Later, it sent additional pandas to other U.S. zoos. The program was called “panda diplomacy” because it wasn’t just about pandas. It was about strengthening ties between China and the United States, which have had a rocky relationship because of their political differences. At the peak of the program, there were 15 pandas in U.S. zoos. Now, there are only four—at Zoo Atlanta in Atlanta, Georgia. Zoo Atlanta’s agreement with China expires in 2024. China continues to lend pandas to nations other than the United States.

Experts say the decline in the number of pandas lent to the U.S. coincides with growing problems between the United States and China. There are no solid plans to bring more pandas to the U.S., but zoo officials say they’re optimistic.

“We’re hopeful for the future, so we have submitted an application that’s being reviewed,” Bob Lee, director of animal care at the National Zoo, told CNN.

For more of the panda trio, check out the slideshow below.

Skip Brown, Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute; Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

NEWS EXTRA

A Panda Comeback?

A giant panda leans over a fallen log and looks to her right.

Roshan Patel, Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

Mei Xiang lived at Washington D.C.’s National Zoo for years before she was returned to China.

Are there more giant pandas in America’s future? At a dinner in San Francisco, California, on November 15, Chinese president Xi Jinping suggested that the answer is yes. President Xi, who had met with U.S. president Joseph Biden earlier that day to discuss a range of issues, commented on both the recent transport of the National Zoo pandas to China and California’s San Diego Zoo, which sent its last pandas to China in 2019.

 “I was told that many American people, especially children, were really reluctant to say goodbye to the pandas and went to the [National Zoo] to see them off,” Xi said. “I also learned that the San Diego Zoo and the Californians very much look forward to welcoming pandas back.” 

 “We are ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation, and to do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians so as to deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples,” Xi added.

 The Chinese leader did not say when China might send more pandas to the United States or which zoo would receive them.

Fun Fact

Mockup of an Asian elephant standing next to a seated Abraham Lincoln, who says no thank you.

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (object no. NPG.65.50), © Sombra12/Dreamstime.com; Photo illustration Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

In 1861, the king of Siam (now Thailand) offered to send elephants to the United States so that it could develop a population of the massive animals. President Abraham Lincoln declined the offer.

Giant Vegetarians

© Creatas Video+/Getty Images Plus

While most bears love a good piece of meat, giant pandas are mainly vegetarians. Bamboo makes up the vast majority of their diet. But pandas are a bit like carnivores in one way: they need protein to survive.

Scientists say that the ancient ancestors of the panda were carnivores. The panda evolved to be a vegetarian, even developing strong jaws that enable it to chew through tough, reedy bamboo. But the modern panda still has the digestive system of a carnivore. That is, the panda’s digestive system is short—unlike most plant-eaters, which have long digestive systems to allow their bodies more time to break down vegetation.

So, how do pandas thrive on bamboo and little else? Scientists have found that pandas select the parts of the bamboo that are highest in protein—and when they can’t find the right bamboo, they’ll travel to other areas. If they ate low-protein plants, pandas would not be able to survive.

Dinner Time…Again

A giant panda sits between two branches high in a tree.

© Birdiegal717/Dreamstime.com

If a giant panda is awake, it’s probably eating. Pandas spend up to 16 hours a day devouring bamboo! Learn more about them at Britannica.

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