Despite the below-freezing temperature and heavy snowfall, hundreds of D.C. residents descended upon the National Zoo Saturday to say goodbye to a much-loved giant panda born in the District.
Tai Shan, now four-and-a-half years old, will be leaving for his new home in Chengdu, China on Feb. 4. Tai Shan’s journey will include a 14-hour flight to Beijing and then an extra two- hour trip to Chengdu, said Valene Swanson, a TripTik travel assistant for AAA.
Smithsonian officials at the event helped answer visitora’ questions and showed pictures of the few remaining safe habitats left in China for pandas.
One official, Christy Samson, said that though Tai Shan was born at the zoo, a contract with China requires the panda to go back to his natural habitat while his parents – Mei Xiang and Tian Tian – stay in the District.
Since his birth in 2005, Tai Shan has also been known as “Butterstick,” a nickname chosen because of his then-small size. He is the first surviving giant panda cub born at the zoo, and an extension was granted in 2007 that allowed him to stay an extra two years than originally planned.
Children and adults alike enjoyed seeing Tai Shan in his current habitat as he played outside in the snowy weather and munched on bamboo. Many observers snapped photos and took video of the panda.
Though the celebration was cut short due to the weather, there were souvenir shops and advocacy booths for wildlife conservation efforts at the event along with a farewell cake to commemorate Tai Shan.
“Obviously, there are going to be mixed feelings since it will be sad to see him go after being in Washington, D.C. for the past five years and the fact that he is very popular here and has a lot of fans,” said Zhang Liang, the Chinese Embassy’s minister-councilor for Congressional Affairs.
Liang said Tai Shan’s return to China is integral to the country’s panda breeding program, “where more panda babies are needed to grow the population and help conservation efforts.”
A new habitat awaits Tai Shan, which Liang said he thinks the panda will enjoy.
“Tai Shan is a symbol of friendship and love,” Liang said. “The exchange of the panda shows how strong the relationship between the U.S. and China has become.”