Panda family returns home from US zoo
Departure part of standard operations, normal exchanges: expert
Published: Nov 09, 2023 11:37 PM
The Panda Express takes off as it transports Giant Pandas from the Smithsonian's National Zoo at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, on November 8, 2023. All three of the zoo's pandas Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and their male cub Xiao Qi Ji are leaving for China.Photo;VCG

The Panda Express takes off as it transports Giant Pandas from the Smithsonian's National Zoo at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, on November 8, 2023. All three of the zoo's pandas Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and their male cub Xiao Qi Ji are leaving for China.Photo;VCG

For some giant panda lovers, the return of the panda family Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and their 3-year-old son, Xiao Qi Ji, to China could be exciting news they heard on Thursday, with some Chinese panda lovers saying they would stay up late to welcome the adorable "diplomats" back home.

According to US media reports, the panda family is set to land on Thursday night in Chengdu, a megalopolis at the foot of the mountains of Southwest China's Sichuan Province, the giant pandas' native turf, and will quarantine for a month at the Shenshuping Panda Center in the Wolong National Nature Reserve, a UNESCO-recognized area of protected land that's home to a third of the world's pandas.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at the daily press conference on Thursday that the giant panda is a rare and endangered wild animal loved by the people of the world and is also a friendship envoy of cultural exchanges between China and foreign countries. 

The cooperation between China and the US on the protection and research of giant pandas began in 1996, while the cooperation between China and Smithsonian's National Zoo, where the three pandas were staying, began in 2000. The two sides have established a good cooperative relationship and achieved positive results in the protection and breeding of giant pandas, disease prevention and control, diagnosis and treatment, and public education, which has played an important role in enhancing the friendship between the two peoples, he said.

After Mei Xiang and her family returned to China, there are still four giant pandas in the US at Zoo Atlanta. It is believed that as ambassadors of friendship, they will continue to build a bridge of friendship between the Chinese and US people, Wang noted.

The Smithsonian's National Zoo organized a nine-day event from September 23 to October 1 dedicated to providing their thousands of devoted fans with an opportunity to bid farewell to the giant panda family.

Xu Xueyuan, minister of the Chinese embassy in the US went to the zoo to see off the panda family. Accompanied by Zoo Director Brandie Smith, Xu observed the entire departure. 

In her speech, Xu thanked the experts and staff of the zoo and other institutions for their efforts in panda conservation and reproduction. For 23 years, the giant panda Mei Xiang and Tian Tian were professionally fed, and they and their four babies, Tai Shan, Bao Bao, Bei Bei and Xiao Qi Ji, have brought joy and spread knowledge to US people and people around the world, becoming stars of the zoo. 

Giant pandas belong to China and the world, Xu stressed. China is willing to continue to strengthen cooperation with its partners, including the US, to enhance cooperation and research capabilities in the field of endangered species and biodiversity protection, so as to make greater contributions to the sustainable development of the Earth and add positive energy to the friendship between peoples of different countries.

Smith said it was a historic moment that was both difficult and exhilarating. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian have been the stars of the zoo since coming to the US, and have become the idols in the US. Smith later noted at the ceremony held at the airport that the US-China giant panda conservation research cooperation has lasted for more than 50 years, which is the longest continuous cooperation for the protection of a single species in the world. 
"The partnership we have with China is extraordinary," she said.

A family from Minnesota told US media that they were disappointed to find the zoo closed in the morning. One member of the family, a little boy, was clutching a panda stuffie named "Panda Panda Panda." He said he loves pandas. "I'm gonna cry when they leave," he said.

The news of the giant panda family's return became a trending topic on China's social media platform Sina Weibo on Thursday, with nearly 43 million netizens expressing their joy and excitement over the pandas' return.

"Welcome our cutest treasure back home! There will be endless bamboo and fresh bamboo shoots in the future, and I hope Mei Xiang and Tian Tian can enjoy their old age in China, and Xiao Qi Ji will grow up happily with researchers taking care of the family," Yang Te, a panda lover, told the Global Times on Thursday, wishing the panda family a safe and sound journey home.

In the US for 23 years, the family has made great contributions to the country, it is hoped that they can feel more love and care in their hometown, said a netizen.

After the departure, the Zoo Atlanta will become the only zoo in the US to have giant pandas, and their loan agreement with China for the pandas is set to expire at the end of 2024.

While some US media outlets are calling the pandas' return a sign of "deteriorating China-US relations," experts said that the return of the panda family is a normal exchange between China and the US on animal protection that is fully in line with standard operations and requirements.

This kind of argument fears improvements in China-US relations and wants to continue to create an unfriendly atmosphere in the US, Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations at the China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times. "Pandas are pandas. They are not a weapon and should not be politicized. Such rhetoric is the biggest difficulty in China-US cultural exchanges and animal protection."