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D.C.'s resident giant pandas are leaving any day now

A wide-eyed Xiao Qi Ji munching on bamboo
Tyrone Turner
WAMU / DCist
Xiao Qi Ji, a 3-year-old cub, eats bamboo in his enclosure at the National Zoo's Giant Panda habitat.

Read the original article on WAMU/DCist's website.

The giant pandas are now set to leave the Smithsonian’s National Zoo by the middle of November, some weeks earlier than initially expected.

Zoo officials confirmed to DCist/WAMU last week that all three pandas — 26-year-old male Tian Tian, 25-year-old female Mei Xiang, and their 3-year-old cub Xiao Qi Ji — will be departing Washington, D.C., within the next three weeks. The zoo’s agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association ends on Dec. 7, but officials said they are heading back earlier than that.

The pandas' exact departure date and when they will no longer be on public view remains unclear. The Zoo held a farewell celebration for the pandas in September.

All of this is in accordance with an agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association — one that’s already been extended several times, most recently in 2020.

Pandas first arrived at the National Zoo in 1972, setting off panda-monium in D.C. The animals have since become D.C.’s unofficial mascot, cultivating a passionate local fanbase and drawing tourists and visitors to the zoo for more than 50 years.

Zoo officials and locals alike are bracing for their departure.

“Giant pandas are the symbol of cuteness. They’re the symbol of conservation. But the fact that they have become a symbol of the D.C. area and how all of our citizens have just rallied around these animals and think of them as their own,” Brandie Smith, the John and Adrienne Mars Director of the National Zoo’s Conservation Biology Institute, told DCist/WAMU. “So I think it will be it will definitely be a loss for us when these animals leave. It will be a sad moment.”

The zoo has also invested lots of money and resources into the pandas.

In 2006, the National Zoo opened the $53 million Asia Trail exhibit, using both public and private funding to double the space for pandas. A new indoor exhibit for visitors was added in 2019 funded in part by a $12 million donation from David Rubenstein. It’s not clear what will happen to the panda habitat in the immediate future.

“We’ll take this time to update the indoor habitats and we may exhibit other animals while there are no pandas at the Zoo. No confirmation of what animals may go on exhibit at this time,” a Zoo spokesperson told DCist/WAMU.

There remains a chance that pandas will come back to the zoo, much like in 2000 after the death of Hsing-Hsing a year earlier.

Director of Animal Care Bob Lee reiterated that the zoo remains in negotiations with its Chinese partners about bringing pandas back to D.C. However, if it did come to pass, an agreement wouldn’t be finalized until after these particular pandas depart.

In the meantime, the zoo will continue to market and highlight the numerous other animals they have on site.

“We know that when people come here, they want to see the pandas. We don’t know how many people come here, only to see the giant pandas. So that’s something we’re definitely going to find out,” Smith said. “We have so many incredible animals here. We know people will have a good time. We’re hoping maybe this is an opportunity for them to visit some other areas.”

The departure will not be announced ahead of time due to “safety and security reasons,” according to a zoo official.

Matt Blitz is a producer for WAMU in Washington, D.C.