Three giant pandas boarded a 19-hour flight to China today over fifty years after their species first arrived in Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian National Zoo. This is a move that some experts are saying is the end of “panda diplomacy” as tensions between the U.S. and China continue to grow.
“Panda Express” FedEx B777-FS2 plane (N886FD), that is carrying the 3 beloved DC pandas has taken off from the Dulles Airport (IAD) for the 19 hour journey to China.
It’s the first time in 23 years the panda exhibit at the National Zoo is empty.
🎥Joseph Olmo / NBC4 Washington pic.twitter.com/vMUJiawjF3
— FL360aero (@fl360aero) November 8, 2023
Pandas Head Back To China From Washington D.C.
“Goodbye, and bon voyage,” a Chinese diplomat said in a message to the pandas, who had been living in Washington D.C. on loan from China, according to Fox News.
Mei Xiang, the female panda, was the first to leave the zoo in a crate provided by FedEx. She was later joined by male Tian Tian and their 3-year-old son Xiao Qi Ji, each of whom were in their own crates.
“The three family members are all in good health and ready for the flight,” the Chinese diplomat said in his full comments. “As a diplomat in Washington, I say goodbye and bon voyage. As a Chinese government official, I say welcome back.”
Before the pandas left, National Zoo Director Brandie Smith gave a farewell speech for them, describing this as a “hard morning” emotionally.
“It’s a moment of joy because this is one more step in 50 years of a successful giant panda conservation program, and hopefully the beginning of 50 more years,” Smith said, according to NBC Washington. “Please know the future is bright for giant pandas. We remain committed to our program, and we look forward to celebrating with all of you when pandas can return to D.C.”
❤️🐼 Whether he was somersaulting down a snow-covered hill, splashing in a tub filled with suds or snacking on bamboo shoots, giant panda Tian Tian captured the hearts of millions with his chill and goofy personality. We wish him safe travels to China. #PandaStory @smithsonian pic.twitter.com/tDxRyQ7DsI
— National Zoo (@NationalZoo) November 8, 2023
American Panda-Lovers Say Goodbye
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The National Zoo had kept the pandas’ departure date a secret, only revealing to the public that they would be leaving before mid-November. It was not until early Wednesday morning that the zoo confirmed that the animals would be leaving today, but visitors still came to say their goodbyes.
“We are just sending good wishes with them on their travels,” said one woman, with a little boy who was clutching his own toy panda adding, “I’m gonna cry when they leave.”
I usually watch the panda cam for stress relief, now that the pandas are going back, I can’t do it anymore https://t.co/YiDCLi7UOX
— gemuk macam (@dugongterkapar) November 8, 2023
The National Zoo website states that this program began in 1972 after “First Lady Patricia Nixon mentioned her fondness for giant pandas to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.”
“As a gesture of goodwill following President Nixon’s seminal state visit, Premier Enlai gifted two giant pandas to the American people,” the zoo continued. “Nestled in the Nation’s Capital and with free admission, the President and Mrs. Nixon selected the Smithsonian’s National Zoo as the home for the giant panda bears.”
Today, March 16, is #NationalPandaDay and the birthday of former First Lady Patricia Nixon. Mrs. Nixon was instrumental in giant pandas coming to @NationalZoo. At dinner in Beijing, China in Feb. 1972, Mrs. Nixon mentioned her fondness for pandas to Premier Zhou Enlai. #GP50 pic.twitter.com/7H94IbvyzD
— National Zoo (@NationalZoo) March 16, 2022
End Of ‘Panda Diplomacy’
Dennis Wilder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues, described this move as “punitive panda diplomacy,” pointing out that two other American zoos have lost their pandas to China in recent years.
Other experts are saying that this marks the end of “panda diplomacy” amidst tensions between the U.S. and China.
“There’s no doubt that this is a reflection of the state of bilateral relations,” Yun Sun, a China expert at the Stimson Center, a foreign affairs think tank told Politico. “The pandas are supposed to unify the relationship with the United States, and the relationship between the U.S. and China is so bad anyway, what’s the point of the panda being here?”
After more than two decades of “panda diplomacy,” Washington’s popular pandas are being returned to China. pic.twitter.com/ucueA3t6iN
— ABC News (@ABC) November 8, 2023
This all just goes to show how much times have changed since the days of unity between the U.S. and China. What do you think about this? Let us know in the comments section.
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