A bittersweet birthday for Bei Bei

Bei Bei had a great time at his birthday party yesterday at the National Zoo, enjoying his cake made of fruits, carrots, and sweet potatoes.

Bei Bei was oblivious about what turning four years old means, but the humans at his celebration were painfully aware of what happens next. Under the panda loan agreement with China, four is the age when panda cubs must return to China to be part of their conservation and breeding program. No specific date has yet been set for Bei Bei’s departure, but it will be sometime in the next few months.

Bei Bei flips over his birthday cake

Pandas have been at the National Zoo for almost 50 years, but there have only been three panda cubs during that time, all of them in recent years – Tai Shan, Bao Bao, and now Bei Bei. We went to the farewells for Tai Shan and Bao Bao, among crowds that had loved seeing them for their all-too-short time in D.C., and we expect that the farewell to Bei Bei will be similarly large and sad.

Tai Shan

Tai Shan went back to China in February 2010. His last day was cold with snow still on the ground, so Tai Shan played quietly indoors, with viewers crowded around on the other side of the glass.

Bao Bao

On a cold but sunny day in February 2017, crowds came to see Bao Bao for the last time, as she sat happily on the hill eating bamboo.

The panda program at the National Zoo started in 1972, as President Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai were working on fostering relations between the U.S. and China. The first breeding pair, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, lived at the zoo until their deaths (Ling Ling in 1992 and Hsing-Hsing in 1999). Ling-Ling became pregnant five times, but all of the cubs died at birth or shortly after, so it was year after year of hope turning into sadness.

A year after Hsing-Hsing died, a new pair came to D.C. in 2000, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. Smithsonian and Chinese scientists were continuously working together on improving breeding processes. There were a few more years of frustration and heartache, until Tai Shan was born in 2005, 33 years after the panda program began.

Tai Shan went back to China in 2010, and after a few more reproductive failures and a still birth and a cub that lasted only a few days, Bao Bao was born in 2013, one of two twins with the other cub not viable after birth. Bei Bei followed in 2015, again one of two twins with the other cub dying four days after birth. Bao Bao went back to China in 2017, and Bei Bei’s time is coming soon.

The parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, are on loan from the Chinese government. The load period ends in December 2020 unless the two governments extend the program.

So there is lots of sadness and uncertainty among the joy of watching the pandas thrive both here and under the Chinese conservation program. And we have reason to hope yet again – Mei Xiang is showing possible signs of pregnancy, but nothing is known for sure.

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