It Might Be Your Last Chance To See Pandas In The Fuzzy Flesh

They've only been on loan, and it's time for them to go home.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 20: 9-month-old male giant panda cub Xiao Qi Ji climbs in a tree at the Smithso...
Drew Angerer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

It’s hard to remember a time when zoos in the U.S. didn’t have pandas. It’s been more than 50 years since giant pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were given to the U.S. as a gift, says the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute. Since then, pairs of pandas have been sent to U.S. zoos “on loan” for decades, giving parents and kids an adorable, 200+ pound reason to visit the nation’s zoos while on vacation or in their hometowns. In fact, the presence of pandas may have come to feel like a given. Some pandas may go back home, but other pandas always arrive on U.S. shores. But while the giant panda — and panda diplomacy — has become a mainstay of international relations and of adorable zoo visits, that’s all about to change.

According to DCist, come December 7, the last three pandas — Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and Xiao Qi Ji — living at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington D.C. will be returned to China in agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association. When that happens, it will mark the end of the panda exhibit at the zoo, which has been a staple since 1972, leaving Atlanta as the only U.S. zoo with pandas.

Much of this is routine — over the past few years, giant pandas in cities like San Diego and Memphis have been returned to their native China. But for the first time, expiring loan agreements are not being renewed. (Some are calling the trend “punitive panda policy.”)

After the D.C. pandas depart in early December, there will be only one place to see a giant panda in the U.S. — the Atlanta Zoo pandas, home to panda parents Lun Lun and Yang Yang and their offspring, Ya Lun and Xi Lun.

But those days are numbered too. According to the zoo’s agreement with China, the young cubs need to return in early 2024, and it’s very likely, according to CBS News, that Lun Lun and Yang Yang will head home, too, by the end of next year: “The loan agreement, which was instated in the mid-1990s, expires in 2024, and the zoo says there has been no discussion to extend it.”

But is this really the last time you’ll be able to see pandas in the U.S.? We have no panda-shaped crystal ball. Miracles happen. The National Zoo says they’re working with the China Wildlife Conservation Association to “develop a future giant panda program,” and the D.C. mayor’s office said they’d jump right back into negotiations to bring pandas back to the zoo. The Atlanta Zoo notes there have been no discussions to extend their loan.

So, what does that mean for you? If you have children who are panda obsessed — or if you yourself are panda obsessed — you have just two months to plan a farewell visit to the Smithsonian National Zoo. While tickets to the National Zoo are free, you’ll need to reserve a free entry pass four weeks in advance of your planned visit to say goodbye to the pandas we know and love. (You’ll have a few months to make it to Atlanta, of course.)

If you can’t make it to see the last pandas in person before they’re scheduled to leave the country, you can at least tune in to panda live streams at both the Smithsonian and the Atlanta Zoo.