Giant pandas are returning to Smithsonian National Zoo in DC

A pair of 2-year-old giant pandas are set to arrive at the National Zoo by the end of the year. The male panda, Bao Li, is the offspring of Bao Bao, who was born in D.C. in 2013

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Giant pandas are set to return to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., by the end of the year, officials announced Wednesday.

China will send a pair of 2-year-old pandas, male Bao Li and female Qing Bao, under a 10-year breeding and research agreement, the zoo said in a press release, to the joy of panda fans throughout the D.C. area and the United States.

“This longstanding program, and this collaboration with our Chinese colleagues, is one of the reasons why giant pandas are no longer listed as endangered, but rather only vulnerable, on the global list of species at risk of extinction,” National Zoo director Brandie Smith said.

Bao Li (BOW-lee), whose name means "treasure" and "energetic" in Mandarin Chinese, is related to the National Zoo’s former resident panda family: He is the son of Bao Bao, who was born in D.C. in 2013. That makes Bao Li the grandchild of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, who lived at the National Zoo for about 23 years before returning to China last fall.

Bao Li was born Aug. 4, 2021, and lives at the Shenshuping Base in Wolong.

Two-year-old male giant panda Bao Li in his habitat at Shenshuping Base in Wolong, China, May 16.

“The pandas' arrival is not just an exciting event, but it’s proof positive of the success of our giant panda program,” Smith said.

“Bao Li is just as handsome as his uncles, Tai Shan and Xiao Qi Ji,” Chinese ambassador Xie Feng said at a press conference Wednesday. “I believe he is also excited for the upcoming trip from his hometown in Sichuan to D.C. to see the place where his family lived and get to know the friends here.”

As for Qing Bao (ching-BOW): “She is a star,” Feng said. Qing Bao was the ambassador of the ninth World Wildlife Day when she was a year old. Her name means "green" and "treasure." She was born Sept. 12, 2021, and lives at the Dujiangyan Base in Sichuan.

Two-year-old female giant panda Qing Bao in her habitat at Dujiangyan Base in Sichuan, China May 17.

The announcement comes six months after the National Zoo’s three iconic pandas left the zoo with an emotional goodbye as the conservation agreement expired.

FedEx is set to fly the new pair to the United States via its “Panda Express service.” The animals will be quarantined for at least 30 days, and then allowed to settle in for a few weeks before the panda exhibit opens to the public.

“The public debut date will be announced as soon as the animal care team feels the bears are ready to meet visitors,” the zoo said.

Under the new agreement, the National Zoo will pay $1 million per year to the China Wildlife Conservation Association to “support research and conservation efforts in China,” according to the zoo. That money does not come from federal funding, according to the zoo.

The National Zoo says it is looking to raise $25 million to pay for renovations to the panda exhibit; maintain and upgrade the Giant Panda Cam; pay for costs of operating the panda exhibit and support conservation efforts.

Chinese ambassador Xie Feng revealed new details about the giant pandas coming to D.C.'s National Zoo.

China will retain ownership of the bears, and any cubs must be returned to China by age 4.

The Chinese ambassador says he hopes the agreement will bring joy to a new generation of families.

“Over the past five decades, pandas have held a special place in the childhood memories of numerous Americans. Today, many of those happy kids have become grandpas and grandmas, dads and moms themselves. They look forward to taking their kids to the zoo to tell their stories with pandas and start new ones for their little boys and girls,” Feng said.

Giant pandas were a staple at D.C.’s National Zoo for over 50 years

The National Zoo’s longstanding resident pandas, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, departed D.C. last fall, along with their youngest offspring, Xiao Qi Ji, who was born at the zoo in 2020. The three went to new homes in the China Wildlife Conservation Association, leaving the National Zoo's giant panda habitat vacant for the first time in decades.

Pandas first arrived at the National Zoo in the 1970s and evolved into D.C.'s unofficial mascots. The black-and-white bears appeared on Metro farecards, street signs and statues around the District.

The panda conservation program flourished after Tian Tian and Mei Xiang arrived in D.C. in 2000. Mei Xiang gave birth to four surviving cubs. Tai Shan was born in 2005, but his birth was followed by a long dry spell before a crushing blow: A cub born in 2012 lived for just a week.

The following August, we got both hope and sadness: A squirming newborn arrived, along with a stillborn twin. But as D.C. held its collective breath, the living cub thrived. Bao Bao squawked adorably during vet exams captured on video, tumbled (safely — whew!) down a pile of rocks, and even prolonged the excitement when the National Zoo's webcam went dark during a government shutdown. When the cams went live again, she had a new surprise: Her eyes had opened.

Jan. 6, 2014: Bao Bao at the Smithsonian's National Zoo, a few days before going on display to the general public. (Photo credit: Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images)

Maybe it was just us, but Bao Bao always seemed to know when to drum up some attention. She was the source of some adorable headlines. (Case in point: Mei Xiang Cuddles Cub Rather Than Snacking.) There was a paternity drama — was her biological father the zoo's own Tian Tian, or another male panda whose sperm was also used in a fertility attempt? (Verdict: Tian Tian IS the father.) And just before Christmas 2014, Bao Bao spent 24 hours in a tree, diverting focus from holiday celebrations before she finally climbed down.

But after becoming a big sister, Bao Bao was ready to strike out on her own. She moved to China — taking a similar FedEx journey as the rest of her family members ultimately did — and became a mom herself.

Bao Bao's birth was followed by two surviving younger brothers: Bei Bei in 2017 (who was born with a twin who died days after birth) and Xiao Ji Qi, the first panda in the U.S. born after his mother was artificially inseminated with frozen, instead of fresh, semen.

The agreement to keep Tian Tian and Mei Xiang was extended several times. The panda program has always served as a gesture of friendship and a sort of soft diplomacy between China and the United States. The pullback of pandas from the National Zoo and other zoos in the United States sparked some concern. Currently, there are only four pandas in the country – all at Atlanta’s zoo.

But in February, news that China plans to send a new pair of giant pandas to the San Diego Zoo signaled the return of panda diplomacy.

Despite the links to U.S.-China diplomacy, the negotiations are researcher-to-researcher and not based in politics, Smith, the National Zoo's director, told News4 last summer.

"We're a bunch of scientists; we're a bunch of animal people," Smith said. "This is not a political conversation. This is absolutely a conversation between colleagues talking about, what's best for the overall program, and also, what can be best for individual animals?"

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