WASHINGTON - Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and Xiao Qi Ji landed safely in China on Thursday, marking the end of an era that began over 50 years ago and saw millions fall in love with the adorable and captivating giant pandas at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
The pandas were loaded into specially designed crates away from public view then onto waiting trucks that took them to Dulles International Airport.
Once inside the FedEx Panda Express, a custom-decaled Boeing 777F aircraft, they set off on a 19-hour flight from D.C. to Chengdu, with a refueling stop in Anchorage in between.
They landed in Chengdu just before 11:30 p.m. Thursday, about 10:30 a.m. in the nation's capital.
Zoo officials say they will share an update from their animal care team upon their return to D.C.
Adult male giant panda Tian Tian eats a frozen fruitsicle treat inside a specialized travel crate before departing the Smithsonians National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C. (Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biolo
"It is a moment with some heartbreak in it," said National Zoo Director Brandie Smith as the pandas made their journey to China Wednesday. "But it is also a moment of joy because we are celebrating the success of the world’s longest running conservation program for a single species."
Originally scheduled to leave at the end of the zoo's exchange agreement with the Chinese government in December, the departure was moved up several times before the three ultimately departed Wednesday.
The history of giant pandas at the National Zoo began as a gesture of goodwill following a 1972 visit to Beijing by President Nixon. China gifted giant pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing to the United States later that year.
After the deaths of the original pair, China sent Mei Xiang and Tian Tian to live at the zoo – but this time as part of a research and breeding agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association. Mei Xiang gave birth to cubs Tai Shan, Bao Bao, Bei Bei, and Xiao Qi Ji at the National Zoo.
Juvenile male giant panda Xiao Qi Ji eats a frozen fruitsicle treat inside a specialized travel crate before departing the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C. (Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation
During the 50 years of panda exchanges between China and the National Zoo, giant pandas have been removed from the list of endangered species.
Once the agreement with China expires in early December, there is no guarantee pandas will ever return to the zoo. Negotiations to renew or extend the deal have not produced results.
Many speculate that Beijing is gradually pulling its pandas from Western nations due to deteriorating diplomatic relations with the U.S. and other countries.
The departure of the National Zoo's pandas means that the only giant pandas left in America are at the Atlanta Zoo. That loan agreement expires late next year.
Instead of views of the empty panda exhibit, the zoo’s popular livestream Giant Panda Cam is now showing panda moments from throughout their time here.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Adult female giant panda Mei Xiang enjoys a frozen fruitsicle treat inside a specialized travel crate before departing the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C. (Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation