Tai Shan's days in D.C. may be numbered

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 4, 2009

We knew this sad day was coming.

And now, apparently, it has.

The National Zoo has scheduled a news briefing for Friday morning, and it seems likely that officials will announce that Washington's beloved adolescent giant panda, Tai Shan, is leaving his place of birth and being sent to China.

The zoo said last spring that "Tai" was probably going to China this year, as part of a loan agreement with the Chinese government.

Although he has felt like ours since his birth at the zoo July 9, 2005, he has always been Chinese property.

Under the agreement, which brought his parents to the United States, he was to be sent to China when he turned 2. The zoo paid China $600,000 for his original stay.

In April 2007, the zoo announced a new agreement with China, allowing Tai Shan to stay in Washington for free for two more years.

But those years passed quickly, and now it seems that Tai's time here is about up. It's not yet clear how soon he might go.

His departure will end a four-year love affair between a town ruled by the blood sport of politics and a rotund, bamboo-munching black and white bear.

Zoogoers have watched him grow from the squealing butter-stick-size infant to an almost 200-pound youth, and the focus of a kind of Pandamania.

Since his debut Dec. 8, 2005, Tai Shan has been a superstar, drawing millions of visitors to the Northwest Washington zoo, and tens of millions of fans to the panda cams on the zoo's Web site.

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) once called Tai Shan Washington's most important citizen. The bear has been on wallpaper and the cover of magazines. He has been the subject of a documentary, the model for zoo merchandise and personal tattoos, and the inspiration for a fan club, Pandas Unlimited.

The zoo just announced his appearance on a postage stamp.

Giant pandas are native to China, where a devastating earthquake recently damaged the country's Wolong panda reserve.

Tai Shan's parents, Mei Xiang, 10, the female, and Tian Tian, 11, the male, are also at the zoo under an agreement -- a 10-year, $10 million loan -- and they are scheduled to go back to China next year.

They arrived from China in December 2000 as part of a research, conservation and breeding program. But panda reproduction has been problematic in captivity. The zoo has tried and failed eight times to breed Mei Xiang. Tai Shan is her only offspring.

Giant pandas are endangered. There are only about 1,600 in the wild and slightly more than 200 in captivity.

Three other zoos in the United States have giant pandas, in San Diego, Atlanta and Memphis.

The San Diego Zoo has sent two of its cubs to China. Hua Mei, a female born in 1999, left in 2004. Mei Sheng, a male who was born 2003, was sent in 2007.

San Diego currently has five giant pandas: two adults and three youngsters.

Last year, the San Diego Zoo negotiated a four-year extension on the 12-year loan of its two adult pandas.

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