Staff and visitors celebrated a bittersweet birthday along with beloved panda Mei Xiang this week.
Mei Xiang has lived at the National Zoo for over 20 years, having arrived with male panda Tian Tian in December 2000.
Sadly for the residents of Washington and the rest of the USA, Mei Xiang is slated to head back to China in December of this year (2023). So that means this will be the last birthday Mei Xiang celebrates on American soil.
Hundreds of fans arrived at the zoo to celebrate the important birthday and thousands of fans tuned in live via the Smithsonian’s panda cams to watch the party.
What does a panda's birthday party look like?
The staff at the National Zoo really went all out to make Mei Xiang’s big day a special one.
A special “fruitsicle cake” made from fruit juice and mashed fruit and vegetables was presented along with a range of other treats.
It might not sound very delicious to us, but for a panda that is one tasty cake!
A small number of visitors were allowed to share the special moment with keepers and Mei Xiang, with some of the panda’s biggest fans there to celebrate.
What's next for Mei Xiang?
It was agreed in 2020 that the three pandas living at the Smithsonian National Zoo, including Mei Xiang, would return to China in late 2023.
This was a three year extension to the standard 20 year loan agreement offered by the Chinese government.
The pandas’ departure might be a big shame for US residents, but it’s a completely normal part of the loan agreements that zoos all over the world sign with the Chinese government.
Panda loans are normally time limited and China prefers to have pandas come back to China when they’re either elderly (for pandas!) or of breeding age.
So Mei Xiang, at the age of 25, is ready for a happy retirement in her native land. She’ll likely live out the rest of her life in one of China’s large panda reserves, where she can enjoy being in her natural habitat (while still receiving support from keepers).
What's next for the Smithsonian National Zoo?
The zoo have yet to sign a new loan agreement with the Chinese government, so for the forseeable future there’s no guarantee the zoo will have a panda exhibit.
It would be the first time the zoo hasn’t been home to pandas for over 50 years. The Smithsonian National Zoo was the first US zoo to welcome pandas from China in 1972.
Giant pandas at the zoo have always made a huge impression on the locals. Check out these amazing interviews with local fans from the Washington Post.
Staff at the zoo are just as besotted with the bears, with zoo director Steve Monfort saying “It’s going to be a heartbreak for us” about the pandas’ departure.
We’ll keep our fingers crossed that the zoo can sign a new loan agreement soon and the relationship between China’s breeding programme and America’s national zoo can continue.
How long do pandas usually live?
The average lifespan for a panda in captivity is 25-35 years, with the oldest panda ever reaching the age of 38.
That should hopefully mean Mei Xiang has many good years ahead to enjoy in her native land, a place she’s not visited for over 20 years!