Courtesy of/Smithsonian National Zoo
Under the terms of previous agreements, any giant panda cubs born to Mei Xian and Tian Tian had to move back to China when they turn four years old. But this new agreement is set to expire when Xiao Qi Ji is only three.
Courtesy of/Smithsonian National Zoo
All good things must come to end, including the best thing of all: pandas.
The Smithsonian's National Zoo announced Monday that its two adult giant pandas, female Mei Xiang and male Tian Tian, will move back to China at the end of 2023. Long-term plans for their cub Xiao Qi Ji, whose name translates to "Little Miracle" in English, are still up in the air, officials said.
The zoo just negotiated a three-year extension of its giant panda leasing agreement with China, which was set to expire this month. As with previous agreements, the zoo will pay the Chinese government $500,000 per year through 2023 to keep Chinese-owned pandas in D.C.
Under the terms of previous agreements, any cubs born to Mei Xian and Tian Tian had to move back to China when they turn four years old. But this new agreement is set to expire when Xiao Qi Ji is only three. Does that mean he might have to leave Washington sooner than expected?
"Too early to confirm anything," wrote zoo spokesperson Pamela Baker-Masson in an email to WAMU/DCist. "It makes sense that [Xiao Qi Ji] would move to China when his parents go. However, when it comes time for the NEXT agreement, we'll have conversations about conservation, research breeding and will address what is in the best interest of Xiao Qi Ji."
The Zoo's director, Steve Monfort, only confirmed it was time to start preparing to part with the two adult pandas. "We have . . . three more years to really prepare ourselves also for saying goodbye," he told the Washington Post. He said he felt confident China might send more pandas to D.C. in the future, despite the current state of affairs between the two countries.
The National Zoo's panda agreement with China dates back to the Nixon era. In 1972, First Lady Pat Nixon expressed her interest in pandas to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai over dinner. China then gifted the U.S. two adult pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, to the U.S. as a symbol of goodwill during a time of simmering diplomatic tension between the two countries.
The furry new residents quickly drew enormous crowds to Washington. Scientists at the Smithsonian's Conservation Biology Institute were also able to start studying panda breeding, pregnancy and cub development, though none of Ling-Ling's and Hsing-Hsing's ensuing offspring survived longer than a few days.
The zoo negotiated a new leasing agreement with China following the deaths of the two adult pandas in the 1990s. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, moved from Chengdu to Washington, D.C. in 2000 in exchange for $10 million. What was initially supposed to be a 10-year stay has since been extended three times.
Any cubs the pair produces must move back to China when they turn four. And produce they have: Mei Xiang has given birth to four surviving cubs in the past two decades (the science of panda breeding in captivity has come a long way since the early days of the zoo's panda program in the '70s). When her youngest cub, Xiao Qi Ji, was born this past August, she earned the distinction of being the oldest panda to give birth in captivity in the U.S.
Giant pandas were removed from the endangered species list in 2016 following decades of conservation efforts by zoos, scientists and nonprofits like the World Wildlife Fund. They are still categorized as "vulnerable" due to extensive habitat destruction. There are fewer than 1,900 giant pandas in the wild and around 600 in zoos and breeding centers around the world.
The zoo also announced a $3 million gift to support the panda program from David Rubenstein, the program's largest private benefactor. Rubenstein has donated a total of $12 million to the program over the past decade.
The National Zoo and all other Smithsonians are currently closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.