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3 giant pandas leave DC’s Smithsonian National Zoo for China, ending 50-year run

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is without giant pandas for the first time since 1972 after three of them departed on a 19-hour flight to China on Wednesday.

“Goodbye and Bon Voyage” was the message from Chinese diplomats given to three pandas on loan from China and living in the capital.

The female Mei Xiang was seen leaving the zoo in a wooden box provided by delivery partner FedEx. Later, Tian Tian and his 3-year-old son Xiao Qi Ji were also placed in their own wooden boxes.

“All three family members are in good health and ready to depart,” the diplomat said. “Welcome back!”

Brandi Smith, the John and Adrian Mars director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, called the day one of many historic moments.

Giant panda leaves Washington DC’s National Zoo for China earlier than expected

“There are billions of people who admire, celebrate, love and participate in conservation efforts for giant pandas,” Smith said, adding that it was a “tough morning” mentally.

The zoo’s exchange agreement with the Chinese government, brokered by President Richard Nixon in 1972, expires on Dec. 7. Ongoing negotiations to extend the agreement have yielded no results, leading China watchers to speculate that Beijing is gradually withdrawing pandas from the West. This is due to the deterioration of diplomatic relations with the United States and other countries.

Giant pandas leave Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C. in December

During a flight over the Asia Trail at the Smithsonian National Zoo, zoo staff use a forklift to remove bamboo for panda snacks. (FOX5DC)

The departure from the National Zoo will take place about three weeks earlier than scheduled. The zoo did not give a reason. A huge Pandapalooza Farewell Celebration was held from September 23rd to October 1st to say goodbye to “three of the zoo’s most popular residents.”

The three will be escorted by police to Dulles International Airport in Virginia, where they will depart for China on a FedEx Panda Express.

FedEx Panda Express plane photographed in 2012

A FedEx Panda Express aircraft seen in Paris in 2012. (Frank Prebel/Getty Images)

Giant panda Xiao Qiji seen at the National Zoo in Washington DC

Giant panda Xiao Qi Ji is seen at the Smithsonian National Zoo’s enclosure on October 22, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Giant panda Xiao Qiji seen at the National Zoo in Washington DC

Giant panda Xiao Qi Ji hangs upside down from a tree in his enclosure at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC, on November 7, 2023. Last day to see the pandas before returning to China. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

The bear has been a hugely popular attraction and unofficial symbol of the nation’s capital for decades. Every birthday and anniversary is celebrated in public, and in the midst of a pandemic in August 2020, Xiao Qi Zhi’s unexpected birth drew millions of viewers to the zoo’s panda cam. collected.

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Zoo officials said they remain hopeful that a new agreement can be reached with the Chinese government. The San Diego Zoo returned its pandas in 2019, and a zoo in Memphis, Tennessee, brought home its last bear earlier this year. The departure of the National Zoo’s bears means the Atlanta Zoo will be the only remaining giant panda in the United States, and its loan agreement expires late next year.

Fox News’ Christine Rousselle and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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