VIA THE WASHINGTON POST:
We knew this sad day was coming.
The National Zoo announced Friday morning that Washington’s beloved adolescent giant panda, Tai Shan, is leaving his birthplace and being sent to China.
Tai Shan, the first surviving giant panda cub born at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, will be sent in January or February 2010 to the People’s Republic of China as stipulated in the agreement between the Zoo and the Chinese government, zoo officials said at a news conference. Although he has felt like ours since his birth at the zoo on July 9, 2005, “Tai” has always been Chinese property.
Under the long-term loan agreement that brought his parents to the United States — which expires just over a year from now — any offspring were to be sent to China when they turned 2.
The zoo paid China $600,000 for Tai Shan’s original stay. In April 2007, the zoo announced a new agreement with China, allowing Tai Shan to stay in Washington for free for two more years. But those years passed quickly.
Zoo officials had asked for an additional extension that would have allowed Tai to stay an additional year but China declined the request. Now it seems that Tai’s time here is about up.
The panda’s return to China will end a four-year love affair between a town ruled by the blood sport of politics and a rotund, bamboo-munching, black-and-white bear.
Zoogoers have watched him grow from a squealing butter-stick-size infant to an almost 200-pound youth, and he has become the focus of a kind of panda-mania.
Since his debut Dec. 8, 2005, Tai Shan has been a superstar, drawing millions of visitors to the Northwest Washington zoo, and tens of millions of fans to the panda cams on the zoo’s Web site.
D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) once called Tai Shan Washington’s most important citizen. The bear has been on wallpaper and the cover of magazines. He has been the subject of a documentary, the model for zoo merchandise and personal tattoos, and the inspiration for a fan club, Pandas Unlimited.
The zoo just announced his appearance on a postage stamp.
“I have two hearts with it,” Frances Nguyen, founder of Pandas Unlimited, said in reaction to the news. “I’m very devastated, for my own selfish reason — to see him, and photographing him for four years. It’s hard.
“But I want to think positive for his future,” said Nguyen, who met her husband at the zoo’s panda compound. “Hopefully he’ll find a mate, and he’ll be surrounded by other panda bears. I don’t want to see him be a lonely bachelor.”
“I have concerns about his adjustment,” she added. “But he’s so loved here I think he brings a karma wherever he goes.”
Ngyuen said she and her husband met because of Tai Shan. “He brought a lot of good things into our lives.”
She said other panda lovers also are upset.
“People have different emotions,” she said. “Some people think it’s best for him to go. And some people are dealing with just hearing the news. It’s a shock. We knew the time was going to come. We just didn’t know when.”
Giant pandas are native to China, where a devastating earthquake recently damaged the country’s Wolong panda reserve.
Tai Shan’s parents, Mei Xiang, 10, the female, and Tian Tian, 11, the male, also are at the zoo under an agreement — a 10-year, $10 million loan.
They arrived almost exactly nine years ago, on Dec. 6, 2000, and their time in Washington is set to expire Dec. 6, 2010. Zoo officials said discussions over the details of their departure will likely begin in the spring.
The elder pandas were brought from China as part of a research, conservation and breeding program. But panda reproduction has been problematic in captivity. The zoo has tried and failed eight times to breed Mei Xiang. Tai Shan is her only offspring.
Zoo officials said on Friday they again will try to impregnate Mei Xiang this winter.
Giant pandas are endangered. There are only about 1,600 in the wild and slightly more than 200 in captivity.
Three other zoos in the United States have giant pandas: San Diego, Atlanta and Memphis.
The San Diego Zoo has sent two of its cubs to China. Hua Mei, a female born in 1999, left in 2004. Mei Sheng, a male who was born 2003, was sent in 2007.
San Diego currently has five giant pandas: two adults and three youngsters.
Last year, the San Diego Zoo negotiated a four-year extension on the 12-year loan of its two adult pandas.