china panda diplomacy culver pkg
This may be the only place in the Americas to see a giant panda by 2025
05:54 - Source: CNN

(CNN) – Three giant pandas left their enclosure at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC, and departed by plane back to China on Wednesday, marking the end of more than 50 years of Chinese pandas being housed at the zoo.

The black and white bears – Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and their youngest cub, Xiao Qi Ji – were transported from the zoo in crates and loaded onto a FedEx aircraft at Dulles International Airport, taking off around 1 p.m.

The Smithsonian National Zoo was the first US zoo to showcase pandas as part of what’s been called “panda diplomacy.”

Zoo staff call it a “hiatus” in their five-decade wildly popular panda program; Chinese officials have yet to say whether it will continue.

And with relations between the two superpowers in a constant state of flux, these national treasures may be finding themselves part of the extension of the diplomatic chaos that has taken over the relationship between the two countries.

The pandas’ departure from the National Zoo leaves Zoo Atlanta as the only other US zoo to feature pandas from China, and not for much longer. The contracts for Atlanta’s four bears expire next year, with no word on an extension.

It started during the Nixon presidency

FILE - In this Feb. 21, 1972, file photo, Chinese communist party leader Mao Zedong, left, and U.S. President Richard Nixon shake hands as they meet in Beijing, China. The notion of a substantive sit-down between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump -- the most gazed-upon figures of this moment in the planet's history --is a staggering prospect and a potential logistical nightmare if the two countries ever tried to make it happen. (AP Photo, File)

China acknowledges the cuddly creatures are used for its “major political and diplomatic needs,” especially in places where it hopes to gain more influence or closer relations. China says its focus is on conservation and research and says the US program has been productive.

“The two sides have formed good cooperative relations, achieved fruitful results and played a positive role in protecting endangered species,” said spokesperson Mao Ning of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The purpose is to better protect endangered species and promote global biodiversity conservation.”

Beijing’s panda diplomacy with Washington kicked off in 1972, following President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China.