Nov 8, 2023 - Politics & Policy

National Zoo's giant pandas start 19-hour journey back to China

A FedEx jumbo jet with a giant panda decal on the side

The FedEx Panda Express takes off today. Photo courtesy of FedEx

The National Zoo's giant pandas are leaving Wednesday morning on their 19-hour journey back to China.

Why it matters: It's a surprisingly early departure — the bears were slated to leave before early December, and then mid-November — that leaves D.C. panda-less for the first time in more than two decades.

Between the lines: The zoo had declined to share the panda's exact travel dates ahead of time due to security concerns.

What's happening: The three pandas — patriarch Tian Tian (26), mom Mei Xiang (25), and their 3-year-old cub Xiao Qi Ji — are headed to the China Wildlife Conservation Association in Chengdu.

  • It marks the end of an extended 10-year lease agreement with the Chinese government, which started in 2000 to the tune of $10 million and officially expires next month.

Zoom in: Animal transport is common at zoos, but pandas travel with more fan-bear than most. The plan is to load the pandas into individual crates and parade them down the Asia Trail on forklifts before they're transported to Dulles International Airport.

  • There, they'll board a special jumbo jet — the FedEx Giant Panda Express — scheduled to depart at 1pm.
  • The zoo's chief veterinarian and panda handlers accompany them on the long journey, and serve a constant in-flight menu of water, bamboo, and the pandas' favorite snacks (e.g. sugar cane, leaf eater biscuits).

Zoom out: The U.S.'s remaining two panda cubs and their parents at Zoo Atlanta are slated to return to China next year — and there's no word yet on when, or if, Chinese pandas will be leased again to the National Zoo.

The bottom line: The zoo needs to find another beloved bear to fill visitor's hearts — not to mention David Rubenstein's multimillion-dollar panda habitat. As one staff member told Axios, "I think it's the red panda's time."

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