(CNN) – Three giant pandas left their enclosure at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC, and flew back to China on Wednesday, marking the end of more than 50 years of Chinese pandas being housed at the zoo.
The black and white bears — Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and their youngest cub, Xiao Qi Ji — were transported from the zoo in crates and loaded onto a FedEx plane at Dulles International Airport that took off around 10 p.m.
The Smithsonian National Zoo was the first American zoo to showcase pandas as part of what has been called “panda diplomacy.”
Zoo staff are calling it a “hiatus” in their five-decade wildly popular panda program; Chinese officials have not yet said whether it will continue.
And with the relationship between the two superpowers constantly changing, these national treasures could be part of the extension of the diplomatic chaos that has taken over the relationship between the two countries.
That Pandas’ departure from the National Zoo leaves Zoo Atlanta as the only other US zoo with pandas from China, and not much longer. The contracts of Atlanta’s four Bears expire next year, with no extension in sight.
In this Feb. 21, 1972 file photo, Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, left, and U.S. President Richard Nixon shake hands as they meet in Beijing.
China acknowledges that the cuddly creatures are used for its “major political and diplomatic needs”, particularly in places where it hopes to gain more influence or closer relations. China says its focus is on conservation and research and says the US program has been productive.
“The two sides have formed good cooperative relations, achieved fruitful results and played a positive role in protecting endangered species,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning.
“The aim is to better protect endangered species and promote the conservation of global biodiversity.”
Beijing’s panda diplomacy with Washington began in 1972 after President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China.
Chairman Mao Zedong’s government gave two giant pandas to the United States in a sign of warming bilateral ties after decades of diplomatic freeze.
First Lady Pat Nixon welcomed the pandas to the nation’s capital, saying, “They will be enjoyed by the millions of people who come from all over the country to visit the nation’s capital each year.”
Seeing the popularity of pandas increase among Americans, China sent more of them cute and charismatic creatures to other zoos across the United States and eventually loaned them instead of giving them as gifts.
First Lady Pat Nixon welcomes China’s giant pandas on April 20, 1972, at Washington’s National Zoo. With him is Ting-Hung, head of the Bureau of Public Service in the city of Peking, who accompanied the animals to Washington. In the enclosure is the male panda Hsing-Hsing.
Agreements between China and the US zoos stipulate that Beijing owns the pandas and any of their offspring, and they require payment “for the conservation of giant pandas in China.” The National Zoo has paid $500,000 a year; Zoo Atlanta says it has contributed more than $16 million since the start of its program in 1999.
Since giant pandas arrived at the National Zoo in 1972, zookeepers and scientists have studied their biology, behavior, breeding, reproduction and disease, according to the zoo.
“The zoo’s giant panda team works closely with colleagues in China to advance conservation efforts for giant pandas in human care and in the wild,” the zoo says on its website.
At the program’s peak, there were 15 pandas in the U.S. at one time, but in the past decade, numbers have declined — coinciding with worsening relations between the U.S. and China. And soon there could be no more pandas in American zoos.
Earlier this year, videos surfaced on Chinese social media claiming pandas returned from the Memphis Zoo were abused. Fueled in part by Chinese state media, the claims went viral.
Chinese doctors defended the zoo’s treatment of the pandas, confirming that the giant panda, named YaYa, suffered from a skin disease but was in good health.
But some in China still see it as a symbol of America’s bullying and oppression of China, while others highlight countries like Russia, which also hosts the animals, as a place where pandas are treated well.
Assuming China chooses not to send any more giant pandas and Atlanta sends theirs back next year, by the end of 2024 the only panda in zoos in the entire Americas would be Xin Xin in Mexico City.
CNN’s David Culver, left, talks with Fernando Gual Sill, director general of the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City.
Xin Xin – who at 33 is old for a panda – is owned by Mexico and is a main attraction at the zoo, which is now preparing for a possible increase in visitors.
“For now, come to Mexico!” said Fernando Gual Sill, director general of Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City. “In Mexico City we are lucky to have (a panda) and to see it and enjoy it!”
Pandas around the world
Pandas, part of China’s loan program, are meant to serve as an emissary of friendship between China and the host country, so the fading program in the United States may indicate a diplomatic shift.
Russia, China’s northern neighbor, received a pair of pandas in 2019, with Chinese President Xi Jinping standing with Russian President Vladimir Putin as they welcomed the bears at the Moscow Zoo.
Qatar received its first panda last year.
Steve Schaefer/AFP/Getty Images
Pandas Yang Yang, left, and Lun Lun play together at Zoo Atlanta in November 1999. They have since become parents to seven giant panda cubs born at Zoo Atlanta, according to the zoo.
Including the US, 23 countries have pandas on loan from China, but that number is dwindling. Scotland will lose its two pandas in December when Edinburgh Zoo must return them to China; Australia’s Adelaide Zoo only has its two pandas for one more year.
The pandas leaving America will go to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where conservation efforts have proven successful in recent years. Pandas are no longer on the endangered species list, and their population has increased nearly 17% over the past decade, according to Zoo Atlanta.
Still, the total number of giant pandas in China – 1,864 as of the last census in 2014 – is considered too low to breed and maintain a viable population. Only about 61% of China’s pandas are protected by reserves, and their habitat is threatened by logging in established forests, which eliminates the large hollows in trees pandas like to use for dens, Zoo Atlanta says.
Will the pandas ever return stateside?
National Zoo staff say they hope China can one day send more giant pandas. They are even planning renovations to the soon-to-be vacant panda exhibit.
“We are hopeful for the future, so we have submitted an application that is being reviewed,” said Bob Lee, director of animal care at the National Zoo.
Zoo Atlanta’s panda habitat cost $7 million to build prior to the bears’ arrival in 1999, and assuming the bears leave at the end of their contracted stay, it will now sit empty. Plans for the exhibit, with a welcome sign announcing “Giant Pandas of Chengdu” and a panda-themed gift shop, are not clear.
Remembering how the pandas first came to Washington, zoo visitor Jane Mahalik said she hoped the current first lady could work for their return.
“Pat Nixon got the pandas here,” Mahalik told CNN, “and Jill Biden should go get these pandas back to us.”
CNN’s Yong Xiong reported from Washington, DC and New York; Melissa Gray reported from Atlanta; and David Culver reported from Los Angeles and Mexico City. Karol Suarez contributed from Mexico City.