(ECNS) -- Giant pandas Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and their male cub Xiao Qi Ji departed the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C. and embarked on their way back to China on Wednesday.
In the morning, the zoo packed 220 pounds of bamboo, drinking water, and other supplies for the three giant pandas on their journey and escorted them to the Dulles International Airport.
At a brief ceremony held at the zoo, Xu Xueyuan, minister of the Chinese embassy in the United States said that since collaboration between China and the Smithsonian's National Zoo began in 2000, the two sides have worked closely and fruitfully on giant panda conservation and the research. Such collaboration has contributed strongly to the mutual understanding and friendship between the Chinese and American people.
"China will continue to work closely with cooperation partners including the United States on the conservation and research of endangered species and biodiversity protection. We will make greater contributions to the sustainable development of this planet and the friendship between people of all countries," she added.
Brandie Smith, director of the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZCBI), expressed that this is a hard morning but a moment of joy because this is one more step in 50 years of this successful giant panda conservation program.
"They are an iconic animal for the zoo, for the District of Columbia, and for the country as well," she said.
She added “we are celebrating the success of the world's longest-running conservation program for a single species. And the more than 50 years that we have been working with these animals, giant pandas have been moved off the endangered species list."
The plane took off at around 1 p.m. local time heading for Chengdu, southwestern China, which will take about 19 hours. Two keepers and a veterinarian will accompany the giant pandas all the time.
Mei Xiang and Tian Tian have lived in the United States for 23 years. Their first three cubs Tai Shan, Bao Bao, and Bei Bei have returned to China. Xiao Qi Ji was born on August 21, 2020.