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Tai Shan (tie-SHON), one of the National Zoo’s giant pandas, officially began his journey to China early this morning, leaving the Zoo at 9:04 a.m. The 4½-year-old panda is on his way to Dulles International Airport, where he will board a FedEx 777 plane bound for Chengdu. The non-stop flight will take about 15 hours. Over the years Tai Shan has become a celebrity in Washington and will now take on a new role in China as part of a panda breeding program at Wolong’s Bifengxia Panda Base in Ya’an, Sichuan.
Since his birth July 9, 2005, Tai Shan, whose name means “peaceful mountain,” has attracted millions of visitors worldwide to the National Zoo and to the Zoo’s panda webcams. The Zoo successfully negotiated two extensions with the China Wildlife Conservation Association, which allowed the Zoo to keep Tai Shan for two-and-a-half years beyond the original two-year contract.
“Tai Shan’s departure is bittersweet for his fans and the Zoo staff, as he has been a true ambassador for the giant panda species in the United States over the past four-and-a-half years,” said Steven Monfort, the National Zoo’s acting director. “Because we had the opportunity to keep him longer, our Chinese partners have allowed us to learn more about giant pandas by charting his growth and development. But the time has come to say goodbye, and we know Tai’s next phase will be to help save his species in China.”
Tai Shan is expected to depart from Dulles about noon today and is traveling in a steel crate that measures 77½ inches long, 56½ inches wide and 50 inches tall. He will have fruit (pears are his favorite), vegetables, biscuits and about 55 pounds of bamboo to keep him fed during his journey. Tai Shan will not be the only bear aboard the “FedEx Panda Express.” Zoo Atlanta’s 3-year-old giant panda, Mei Lan, is joining him on her voyage to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Tai Shan will be accompanied by two National Zoo staffers: veterinarian Nancy Boedeker and keeper and trainer Nicole Meese.
FedEx has donated the transportation and logistical services to both the National Zoo and Zoo Atlanta. The “FedEx Panda Express,” with a panda decal on its fuselage, is a 777F aircraft designed to carry only the pandas and their human companions on the 8,600-mile flight.
“I am honored to be able to accompany Tai Shan to his new home in China,” Meese said. “Tai has touched so many people, not only those of us who are lucky enough to know and work with him personally but also those who watched him from a distance. We’ll all be looking forward to the day when Tai Shan becomes a father, ensuring another generation of pandas for all to enjoy.”
In the meantime, the National Zoo staff and volunteers will be monitoring its female panda—Tai Shan’s mother—Mei Xiang (may-SHONG) for indications that she is pregnant. In January, a team of Zoo scientists and collaborators performed two flawless artificial inseminations, but it will take 90 to 185 days to determine whether she is carrying a cub. The contract for Mei Xiang and Tai Shan’s father, Tian Tian (tee-YEN tee-YEN), expires in December, and the National Zoo will negotiate for an extension.
“We’re confident giant pandas will always reside at the National Zoo,” said Don Moore, the Zoo’s associate director of animal care sciences. “From Tai Shan, Smithsonian’s researchers learned valuable information about panda behavior, while his parents have taught us more about the reproductive process unique to pandas. We’re looking forward to continuing this vital research with our adult pandas and, fingers crossed, with another cub.”
The National Zoo is a recognized leader in the care and study of the giant panda. The Zoo has worked for decades to conserve this endangered species and intends to continue its commitment to giant panda research in situ and at the Zoo. About 1,600 giant pandas exist in the wild and nearly 300 live in zoos and research facilities in China and around the world.
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Lindsay Renick Mayer