Bon Voyage Pandas
The Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC, bid farewell yesterday to three giant pandas, who left on a 19-hour plane ride to Chengdu, China, dubbed "the Panda Express." The departure of the two adult pandas, 26-year-old Tian Tian and 25-year-old Mei Xiang, and their 3-year-old son, Xiao Qi Ji, marks the end of more than 50 years of giant pandas being hosted at the zoo (see photos).
Prior to Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the first giant pandas arrived in the US in 1972, when China donated a pair as a diplomatic gesture to commemorate then-President Richard Nixon's historic visit. The visit from Nixon, who became the first US president to visit China, was considered a turning point in changing the balance of power between the US, China, and the then-Soviet Union.
In 1984, China began leasing, rather than gifting, its pandas to zoos in other countries, including the US. The contract includes a yearly fee of between $500K and $1M. Cubs born during the leasing period are property of China. Zoo Atlanta is now the only US zoo with giant pandas, which are set to return to China next year.