Could anything be more fun than a barrel of monkeys? No offense intended to simians or any other species, the answer may well be the delightful family of giant pandas in residence at Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Through Aug. 27, the zoo is celebrating 50 years of achievement in the care, conservation, breeding and study of the adorable creatures both online and on-site.
“After 50 years, giant pandas remain an iconic species for our zoo,” said zoo director Brandie Smith. “More importantly, they represent how great conservation outcomes can be achieved through great partnerships with our Chinese colleagues. Being able to introduce hundreds of millions of people worldwide to pandas and inspiring them to care about their conservation for five decades, coupled with our scientific breakthroughs, is a milestone truly worth celebrating.”
The zoo’s giant panda family consists of 24-year-old male Tian Tian (tee-YEN tee-Yen); 23-year-old female Mei Xiang (may-SHONG) and 19-month-old male Xizo Qi Ji (SHIAU-chi-ji).
Only two other U.S. zoos have giant pandas: Georgia’s Zoo Atlanta and Tennessee’s Memphis Zoo. About 1,500 of these rare mammals live in the wild, in the mountains of southwestern China’s dense bamboo forests.
The National Zoo giant panda project started in 1972, when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai gifted two giant pandas, Ling-Ling, a female, and Hsing-Hsing, a male, to the American people as a gesture of goodwill to commemorate President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China. During the next 20 years, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing produced five cubs, but none survived more than a few days. Ling-Ling died in 1992 and Hsing-Hsing died in 1999.
In December 2000, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang came to live at the National Zoo, on loan from China. In exchange, the National Zoo contributes funds and expertise toward conservation efforts in China. The Giant Panda Cooperative Research and Breeding Agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association has been renewed three times, with the current agreement stipulating that the pandas may remain at the zoo through December 2023.
Mei Xiang has had four successful live births. Three of her cubs have returned to China. The fourth, Xiao Qi Ji, whose name means “Little Miracle” in Mandarin Chinese, was born in August 2020 and remains at the zoo.
During pandemic-related closures, the zoo provided real-time, up-close looks at Xiao Qi Ji during a livestream on Facebook and YouTube. Panda Cam videos of the pandas playing in the snow on the zoo’s social media channels have been viewed millions of times. There’s nothing like seeing the precious pandas in person at the National Zoo, 3001 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, D.C., which offers free admission and is open daily from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Passes are required for all visitors and can be reserved up to 30 days in advance. Parking passes are $30 per car.
by Ellyn Wexler