National Zoo confirms that Tai Shan will be sent to China

Giant panda's return to China will end a four-year love affair between a town ruled by political blood sport and a bamboo-munching black-and-white bear.
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 5, 2009

The black-and-white bear sat under a chestnut oak tree, holding a golden pear in his left paw and regarding his massed admirers as a monarch might his people.

Sure, he had bad table manners: He chewed with his mouth open, dribbled crumbs down his chest and licked his paws.

But Friday, with word that his reign at the National Zoo was ending, Tai Shan, Washington's beloved giant panda adolescent, was saluted as if he were a departing young prince.

Subjects wept. They shouted their love from an overlook. They prayed that he might one day find a suitable princess in the far-off land that will be his new home.

And all this came months before he leaves.

Still, it was wrenching for the kingdom of Pandamonia when the zoo announced at a jammed morning news conference that the revered black-eared bear would be going off to China sometime over the winter. An exact departure date depends on getting an export permit and other clearances, officials said.

As the panda lounged a few feet away in an outdoor compound, acting zoo director Steven L. Montfort explained that the zoo had beseeched Chinese officials to let "Tai" stay another year. "We felt it was logical," he said, because Tai's parents will be in Washington for at least one more year. But China, which owns all giant pandas in U.S. zoos, had granted him two extensions, and the answer was no.

"We respect their decision," Montfort said, "and feel that it's within their rights obviously to exercise the fact that Tai Shan needs to go back."

Chinese Embassy spokesman Wang Baodong, who noted that his 4-year-old son is a panda fan, said: "It's not an easy thing for the Chinese side. . . . Parting is a sad thing."

Tai Shan, whose name means "peaceful mountain," was born at the zoo July 9, 2005, and has been adored by legions of zoogoers since his public debut that December.

But under the agreements that brought his mother, Mei Xiang, and father, Tian Tian, to the zoo from China, all three are Chinese property. Tai Shan was originally supposed to have been turned over to China when he turned 2.

Tai is now old enough to breed, and Chinese conservationists want him in their program to try to increase the population of endangered giant pandas. "Now it's time for him to be just a young male panda," said Lisa Stevens, the zoo's curator of pandas and primates.

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