Tai Shan, the National Zoo's popular giant panda cub, munches on bamboo in Washington in this 2007 photo.
Tai Shan, the National Zoo's popular giant panda cub, munches on bamboo in Washington in this 2007 photo. Jacquelyn Martin/AP
The Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., has tried since the Nixon administration to raise a giant panda cub. The zoo's caretakers met success, after decades of failed attempts, with the birth of Tai Shan on July 9, 2005.
The cute and cuddly panda — whose size at birth earned him the moniker "Butterstick" — drew millions of visitors to the park. The news of his birth was a bright spot for zoo officials, who at the time faced criticism over the deaths of dozens of animals due to neglect.
However, Tai Shan will have to say goodbye to his fans early next month.
Even though he was born on American soil, Tai Shan's parents are on loan from the Chinese government. And under the terms of the lease agreement between the United States and China, the panda must be turned over to his parents' homeland.
In addition to the National Zoo, China leases pandas to zoos in Atlanta, Memphis and San Diego.
"The agreements on all four zoos ... [that] have pandas calls for about a million dollars a year to be paid to China," says David Towne, chairman of the Seattle-based Giant Panda Conservation Foundation.
"What we get out of it is the satisfaction of being able to display pandas here and hopefully breed them," Towne says, "What the Chinese get out of it is money."
Towne estimates that the National Zoo has spent up to $30 million on its panda leases. That money goes to the China Wildlife Conservation Association, which runs a panda breeding program.
The association hopes that one day Tai Shan will have cubs of his own and that they will be introduced into the wild.