Chengdu welcomes return of pandas loaned to US after 23 years

On December 6, 2000, two giant pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Now, 23 years later, they have been transported home to their native Chengdu with their cub Xiao Qiji in tow.

Tian Tian and Mei Xiang were on loan from the Chinese government in exchange for the zoo contributing funds and expertise toward conservation efforts in China. Xiao Qiji (“Little Miracle”) was born in 2021 and is the fourth surviving cub of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the other three having been sent to China in 2010, 2017, and 2019 respectively.

News of the pandas’ homeward journey spawned multiple trending topics on China’s microblogging hub Weibo this week, racking up over 75 million views cumulatively. Some reportedly stayed up late to give the pandas a virtual welcome when they landed in Chengdu, Sichuan at 11.30pm on Wednesday night.

Besides welcome messages, several Weibo users also remarked that the “suffering” of the pandas has finally come to an end with their departure from the US. These comments are inspired by the alleged mistreatment of another panda, Ya Ya, by staff at Memphis Zoo after the zoo’s other panda, Le Le, died unexpectedly in April. Ya Ya’s loan ended shortly after Le Le’s death and she was then sent to Beijing Zoo.

iPanda, a website under China Network Television specialising in panda livestreams, shared a video montage celebrating the Smithsonian Zoo’s conservation efforts. Chinese and American experts say the return of the pandas, especially the cub Xiao Qiji, is good news for the species as they will help add much-needed genetic diversity to the panda population.

“Pandas are wonderful to host here, but it’s definitely time for our cub, the Little Miracle, to head back and start to help with producing new Little Miracles in China,” Stephanie Brinley, deputy director of the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZCBI), told iPanda in an interview.

“As Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and Xiao Qi Ji depart for their new home in China, they leave behind a tremendous legacy in Washington, D.C.,” Brandie Smith, director of NZCBI told the press on Wednesday morning. “As this chapter of our giant panda program closes, we remain committed to the conservation of this species and look forward to continued collaboration with our Chinese colleagues.”

The giant panda’s conservation status was upgraded from “endangered” to “vulnerable” in 2016 after decades-long efforts to save the species from extinction.


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