America's loss will be China's gain, as pandas Tai Shan and Mei Lan are leaving the United States for a home they've never seen. The young giant pandas have been star attractions at their respective zoos in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta since their births.
The two giant pandas and their parents have been on loan from China through a cultural exchange program. Four-years-old now, Tai Shan (a male) and Mei Lan (a female), will become valuable contributors to the propogation of their species.
With a worldwide population between 1200-1500, giant pandas are considered to be an endangered species.
The two pandas will leave on a special flight from Washington on 4 February. Tai Shan's ultimate destination will be the Bifengxia Breeding Base in Ya'an, Sichuan. Mei Lan's home will be the Changdu Giant Panda Breeding Center.
"It's kind of bittersweet for us to have Tai Shan leave after he's been here for four and a half years," said Don Moore, associate director for animal care sciences at Washington's National Zoo.
"It took a considerable amount of Smithsonian science to create this baby panda, but now he's not a baby any more, and he's kind of feeling his oats, and he's an adult and he needs to go back and help his species survive."
Tai Shan was conceived through artificial insemination because his parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, were unable to conceive naturally. The parents have been on a 10-year, $10 million loan to the National Zoo. They are scheduled to return to China in December.
In Washington, preparations for Tai Shan's trip to China have been extensive. "We've been thinking about this trip ever since he was born," said Don Moore. "And we've trained him [to be familiar] with a box, a crate that he would travel in. Anything that they do in China will be very similar to something that he's already experienced here in the United States."
The pandas will travel on a FedEx Express 777 Freighter, known as the "Panda Express." They will be in separate containers.
"I don't know if they'll really interact with each other, but they'll certainly be aware of each other, because they'll be able to smell and hear each other," said Rebecca Snyder, the curator of mammals at Zoo Atlanta.
"We did ask FedEx to put a curtain up so we can pull a curtain between them if they seem to be upset by seeing each other, since they don't know each other."
The pandas will be accompanied by staff members from each zoo. They will arrive in Chengdu on 5 February, following a 14 hour flight from Washington.