WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — It’s a moment Smithsonian National Zoo Director Brandie Smith has dreaded bidding farewell to the institution’s giant pandas.
“There are billions of people who have admired, celebrated, loved our giant pandas,” Smith said.
Early Wednesday, the three pandas were moved into crates and prepared for their 19-hour trip back to China.
But they won’t be alone.
“We have three zoo staff members, we have two of their favorite keepers, we have a veterinarian on board,” Smith said. “And basically, they’re gonna do with them what they do every day.”
Pandas were part of the National Zoo for more than 50 years, and Chinese Embassy Minister Xu Xueyuan said the pandas don’t only belong to China.
“Giant pandas also belong to the world,” Xueyuan said.
The pandas’ return comes while the U.S. and China face growing diplomatic tensions.
“We have an obligation, the United States and China to responsibly manage the relationship,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping will meet next week, but there’s no word on whether pandas will be on the agenda.
“There are a number of areas and issues upon which we hope to make progress,” Blinken said.
For now, all pandas in the U.S. are expected to return to China by the end of next year, but Director Smith remains hopeful.
“I cannot imagine Washington D.C. without giant pandas, and I will do everything I can to bring them back,” Smith said.