Along the Asia Trail sits one of the most popular exhibits at the Smithsonian National Zoo (3001 Connecticut Ave NW). For decades, crowds of children and adults have gathered around the exhibit, both in person and virtually through the Giant Panda Cam, hoping to catch a glimpse of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. The next few weeks, however, may be your last chance to see them in DC.
After a fall filled with farewell events, the bears are scheduled to make their return to China in mid November. The giant pandas currently in residence, arrived from China in 2000 as part of a loan agreement program. The agreement has been extended several times over the years, but the pandas and their cub Xiao Qi Ji are now headed back to China with no firm plans for a return.
Pandas have been a major tourist attraction in DC since the first pair was gifted to the US from China in 1972. In addition, the local celebrities have served as a symbol of cross-cultural collaboration between the United States and China and have created the foundation for research programs at the zoo.
Director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute Brandie Smith noted that “millions” have connected with the bears and their cubs virtually and in person over the years and emphasized their impact on both visitors and researchers at Smithsonian.
“Caring for one animal and its future is the beginning of caring more deeply for the natural world and our place in it,” Smith said. “Although this farewell is bittersweet, we must celebrate these bears and their impact on fans and on our understanding, care and conservation of their species.”
The arrival of the pandas kick started the zoo’s research and conservation efforts for the species both at home and abroad. The research focused on panda biology, behavior, reproduction and disease, and “much of” what the Smithsonian animal care staff and researchers know about the pandas is “a result of caring for and studying Mei Xiang and Tian Tian over two decades” according to the zoo.
You can catch a last glimpse of the playful bears at the Zoo Monday through Sunday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free timed entry passes are required to enter. Visit nationalzoo.si.edu to learn more about the giant pandas and to plan a visit to the zoo.
Sarah Payne is a reporter for Capital Community News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.