Washington, DC, experienced a big event in February, even before the record-breaking snow storms hit—the departure of the city’s beloved panda, Tai Shan, who was born at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in July 2005. Like his parents Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, Tai Shan had been on loan from China as part of a panda conservation program. The National Zoo was able to extend Tai Shan’s contract twice, which lengthened his stay in Washington by two-and-a-half years. But on February 4, Tai Shan and Mei Lan, a three-year-old female panda born at Zoo Atlanta under a similar program, journeyed to China.

Tai Shan and Mei Lan left Washington on a FedEx Express 777 Freighter (777F), the world’s largest twin-engine cargo aircraft. FedEx Express, a subsidiary of FedEx Corp., donated transportation services for the trip—including ground and logistical support in Washington and Atlanta and domestic and international air transport. The 777F, named the “FedEx Panda Express” because of the custom panda decals on the plane’s fuselage, flew nonstop from Washington to Chengdu, Sichuan, in 14.5 hours. (In December 2000, FedEx brought Tai Shan’s parents to Washington on a 17-hour trans-Pacific journey aboard an MD-11, which stopped in Anchorage, Alaska, for refueling.)

In addition to the pandas and their “luggage,” three animal care experts—two from the National Zoo and one from Zoo Atlanta—accompanied the pandas on the flight. A special FedEx crewmember, known as the loadmaster, also traveled with the pandas to ensure that the best conditions were maintained in the cargo section of the aircraft. Tai Shan and Mei Lan each had separate, large travel containers filled with 75 kg of bamboo, water, and fruit. FedEx funded the two custom-built travel crates for the pandas. Weighing more than 1,300 lbs, each steel crate had thick plexiglass sides that allowed the pandas to see outside the crate. The crates also had interior and exterior doors at each end that slid up and down, which allowed caretakers to feed the pandas during the flight.

FedEx Express Chief Operating Officer and US-China Business Council Board Director Mike Ducker, who watched as Mei Lan departed on her trip to China, said “I’m incredibly proud that FedEx Express was entrusted with transporting this precious cargo as part of the global effort to preserve an endangered species. FedEx started operations in China more than 25 years ago, and we look forward to having many more milestones there as we continue to facilitate US-China trade.”

According to the National Zoo, Tai Shan did exceptionally well on the trip. Karin Korpowski-Gallo, senior public affairs specialist at the National Zoo, explained that the zoo’s panda-care staff had been preparing Tai Shan for his departure since the day he was born:

They exposed him to a variety of sounds, people, small spaces, and experiences that made Tai Shan a very confident and easygoing bear. This training paid off with the ease of his transition to China. He was happy and calm throughout the entire trip and was eating well in his new home. Seeing Tai Shan so at ease helped Nicole Meese, the animal keeper who was with Tai Shan for the trip to China, know he was going to continue to thrive as he has done in his years with the National Zoo. Of course it was sad to see him go, and there were tears here from many staff, but everyone who has worked with Tai Shan over the years in DC was very proud of the wonderful job they did raising him to be healthy, independent, and confident.

After an arrival ceremony in Chengdu, the China Wildlife Conservation Association received Tai Shan, who will live at the China Conservation and Research Center’s Wolong Bifengxia Base in Ya’an, Sichuan. The Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens took Mei Lan, who will live at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.

Meanwhile, the National Zoo’s 10-year loan agreement with China for Mei Xiang and Tian Tian expires in December. The National Zoo says that negotiations to extend the pandas’ stay will not begin until late spring or early summer. But the zoo is “honored and happy to work in partnership with the Chinese on panda conservation and is confident that giant pandas will remain at the National Zoo for years to come,” Korpowski-Gallo said.

[author]Paula M. Miller is associate editor of the China Business Review.[/author]

Posted by Paula M. Miller