A young giant panda who became a major attraction after his birth at Washington's National Zoo will leave for China early next year for breeding.
Zoo officials announced Friday that Tai Shan (pronounced "ty shawn") will be leaving the Smithsonian Institution park as soon as January or February. Panda mother Mei Xiang (may-SHONG) and father Tian Tian (tee-YEN tee-YEN) are on a 10-year, $10 million loan to the zoo until December 2010.
Under the Smithsonian's panda loan agreement, any cub born at the zoo must be returned to China for breeding. Tai Shan was born in 2005 and was granted a two-year extension in 2007. Panda cubs are also slated to leave the zoos in Atlanta and San Diego.
Loyal panda fans gathered at the Washington zoo when they heard the news. Many had visited weekly to watch Tai Shan grow from the size of a butter stick to nearly 200 pounds over four years.
"He's magical," said Elise Ney, 49, an audiologist from Bethesda, Md. "He looks at you with those beautiful eyes that just captivate you."
One woman, inspired by Tai Shan, said she had given thousands of dollars to panda conservation efforts.
"He's such a great ambassador for the whole conservation movement," said Cyndi Anderson, 57, a mental health worker from Reston, Va. Not seeing him at the zoo will be like losing a favorite pet, she said.
There are a total of 14 pandas on loan from China in U.S. zoos in Atlanta, Washington, San Diego and Memphis, Tenn. Under its agreements with the zoos, China loans panda pairs for breeding and conservation research. Any cubs those pandas produce are also property of China and must become part of the country's breeding program.
The National Zoo asked to keep Tai Shan until the loan agreement for his parents' stay expires, but a panda conservation group decided he should become part of their breeding program, according to Acting Zoo Director Steve Monfort.
The zoo hopes they can translate the attention Tai Shan generated into action to sustain the panda population, Monfort said. Giant pandas are endangered in the wild.
"While we're very, very sad Tai Shan is leaving, we take enormous pride that he is a normal, healthy cub," Monfort said.
"He is an ambassador," Monfort said. "He provides hope for the conservation ... of an iconic species."
Wang Baodong, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy, said he has often visited the zoo with his 4-year-old son to see Tai Shan, and he'll have to explain why the panda is leaving.
"It's not an easy thing for the Chinese side," he said. "Parting is a sad thing."
Wang said the Chinese want to assure the American people that Tai Shan will be given very good care. He said China will continue its partnerships with U.S. zoos on breeding programs.
The Smithsonian is expected to begin negotiations next year on whether to extend the agreement for Tai Shan's parents' stay. Monfort said they will agree to whatever is best for the panda breeding program.
"I'm very optimistic that pandas will be at the National Zoo for as long as the eye can see," he said.
Tai Shan represents the plight of the endangered species around the world, said Lisa Stevens, the panda curator.
"As zookeepers we're very attached to him. We've watched his every move," she said. "Now it's time to say goodbye."
Stevens said Tai Shan is very confident and more flexible than his parents when it comes to change and she doesn't think the change in language from his handlers will be a problem. His training records and documents will be translated into Chinese for his departure, she said.
Giant pandas at the National Zoo date back to President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China. The first panda couple, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, arrived in 1972 as a gift to the American people. They produced five cubs, but none of them survived.
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Smithsonian's National Zoo: http://nationalzoo.si.edu