DC's giant pandas depart National Zoo for China

D.C.'s giant pandas have departed the Smithsonian's National Zoo and now on their journey to China. The zoo announced the departure early Wednesday morning.

The adult bears Mei Xiang and Tian Tian and their cub Xiao Qi Ji were originally expected to leave sometime in mid-November. It is unclear why the departure was rescheduled for an earlier date.

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A specially designed crate carrying Tian Tian leaves the Giant Panda Habitat at the Smithsonian's National Zoo. 

The pandas were already in their specially designed transport crates early Wednesday when they were moved by forklift down Asia Trail where they were placed into FedEx trucks destined for Dulles International Airport. 

The pandas departed the Smithsonian's National Zoo around 9 a.m.  The Zoo opened to guests at 10 a.m.

READ MORE: Panda Palooza kicks off at the National Zoo

The three transport crates were moved onto the FedEx Panda Express, a custom-decaled Boeing 777F aircraft, that departed on an approximately 19-hour flight to Chengdu around 1 p.m.

READ MORE: Departure of DC's beloved pandas may signal wider Chinese pullback

The zoo's exchange agreement with the Chinese government, originally arranged by President Richard Nixon 50 years ago, expires Dec. 7.

Negotiations to extend the agreement haven’t produced results, amid speculation from China-watchers that Beijing is gradually pulling its pandas from Western nations due to deteriorating diplomatic relations with the U.S. and other countries.

The bears have been a wildly popular attraction and an unofficial symbol of the nation’s capital for decades. Every birthday and anniversary was an occasion for public celebration and the long-shot birth of Xiao Qi Ji in the midst of the pandemic in August 2020 drove millions of viewers to the zoo's panda-cam.

Zoo officials say they remain hopeful they will come to a new agreement with the Chinese government. The San Diego zoo returned its pandas in 2019, and the last bear at the Memphis, Tennessee, zoo went home earlier this year.

The departure of the National Zoo's bears would mean that the only giant pandas left in America are at the Atlanta Zoo — and that loan agreement expires late next year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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DC’s giant pandas to leave National Zoo for China by mid-November