Pandas leave Washington DC's National Zoo for China

For the first time in 51 years, all pandas in Washington DC's National Zoo have departed for China today, leaving the zoo's panda compound empty with no plans for replacements. Link to an article in The Washington Post is here.

Mei Xiang, 25, a female; Tian Tian, 26, a male; and their son, Xiao Qi Ji, 3, will be loaded into three large shipping crates on Wednesday morning, to be placed on a truck bound for Dulles International Airport and a 19-hour, 9,000-mile journey on a FedEx cargo jet to Chengdu, China.

China owns and leases all giant pandas that are in U.S. zoos, and the National Zoo's lease expired yesterday.

The zoo's giant panda story began in February 1972, when President Richard M. Nixon and first lady Pat Nixon made a historic Cold War visit to communist China.

At a banquet in Beijing, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai promised Mrs. Nixon that China would give some giant pandas to the United States as a friendly gesture.

While Nixon's visit and the gift of pandas represented a warming of U.S.-China relations, the loss of the pandas may be emblematic of a new, chillier era.

Pandas have been returned to China from the zoo before, but always with other pandas who stayed behind. When both of the zoo's pandas died in the 1990s, more were brought to the zoo from China, leaving the zoo panda-less for about a year.

Maybe the National Zoo should have declared a One-Zoo principle, and kept the pandas by decreeing that they have been properly unified with the zoo.