Nine o’clock on a Monday morning may not be the typical time one would expect to celebrate a birthday, but more than two hundred people were eager to do just that. The guest of honor, an adorable giant panda named Xiao Qi Ji, slowly clambered down from a tree and sauntered over to a special cake made of apples, sweet potatoes, carrots, bamboo sprigs, and honey held together with frozen fruit juices. By his side was a bowl of fruit, which visitors had lovingly decorated with “Birthday Boy” and “Party like a Panda” accents. Xiao Qi Ji was seemingly unaware of the enormity of the occasion as he sat back and took it all in, prompting collective awws from the crowd of admirers.
The reason for the out-of-the-ordinary birthday bash was that Xiao Qi Ji was celebrating his third, and possibly final, birthday in Washington D.C. He and his parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, will be sent to China in early December after the Smithsonian’s agreement with the Chinese government to house pandas at the zoo expires. Along with the guest of honor, a crowd decked in panda gear had gathered from all parts of the U.S. to celebrate the special occasion.
Giant panda Xiao Qi Ji stands in his enclosure.
Thanks to the Smithsonian’s agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association, the three bears were the latest, and perhaps the last, in a much-storied long line of pandas stationed at the zoo. Their arrival was a symbol of U.S.-China relations that began with Nixon’s historic trip to China and the gifting of two pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, to the D.C. zoo back in 1972.
Unfortunately, tensions between the two countries have been on the rise, a fact that has impacted the bear population. Ya Ya, a panda formerly at the Memphis Zoo, had Chinese netizens and state media up in arms due to allegations of mistreatment from the zoo—although the zoo denied any wrong-doing and Ya Ya has since been returned to China.
Since then, there have also been calls from the South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace to keep all pandas born in the United States to belong to the country rather than be sent back to China, although there currently is no bill in motion to declare such.
Yet despite the challenging atmosphere, Brandie Smith, the zoo’s director, is hoping that the conservation conversation with China will continue regardless of where the pandas are based on.“The people who are having the conversations, they’re the animal people, they’re the wildlife people, they’re the conservation people,” she said.
Smith and her team have also been making the most of the remaining days before the three bears leave, and have organized a “giant farewell celebearation” called Panda Palooza between September 23rd and October 1st. Along with celebrating Xiao Qi Ji’s, Mei Xiang’s, and Tian Tian’s birthdays, they are determined to give this generation of bears the best possible send-off.
This low key event has given hope to both visitors and residents of D.C. alike, yet at the same time casts a shadow of uncertainty as to what the future holds. After all, as Gina Koo, one of the attendees said, “It would break my heart if there weren’t pandas anymore.”