Goodbye to Tai Shan

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.
Brandie Smith
Senior Curator, National Zoo
Friday, December 4, 2009; 12:00 PM

The National Zoo will announce Friday morning that Washington's beloved adolescent giant panda, Tai Shan, is leaving his place of birth and being sent to China.

"Tai Shan, the first surviving giant panda cub born at the Smithsonian's National Zoo, will soon be sent to the People's Republic of China as stipulated in the agreement between the Zoo and the Chinese government," the Zoo said in a media advisory. "The Chinese have granted extensions to the National Zoo that allowed Tai Shan to stay past his second birthday, but those extensions will soon expire."

Brandie Smith, senior curator at the National Zoo, was online Friday, Dec. 4, at Noon ET to discuss the Tai Shan's life and departure.


Brandie Smith: Hi Everyone. Brandie Smith here. I'm a Senior Curator at Smithsonian's National Zoological Park. I'm looking forward to answering your questions about Tai Shan and the panda program at the Zoo.


Arlington, Va.: Is panda poaching a problem in China? How likely is it that Tai Shan will end up on some hunter's wall a year from now?

Brandie Smith: The biggest threat to giant pandas is habitat loss. Tai Shan will be part of a breeding program in a reserve in China. He will not be going back to the wild. Our hope is that his offspring may eventually contribute to the wild population of pandas in China.


Wilmington, Del.: Will Tai's trainer and keeper be able to go and stay with him until he adjusts? Will the Chinese love him as much as we do? Will we be able to get photos and regular updates on how he is doing?

Brandie Smith: Select National Zoo staff will accompany Tai Shan on his trip to China. We will send at least one of the keepers with whom Tai is familiar and they will help him get accustomed to his new habitat.


Wilmington, Del.: Can the zoo have a Bon Voyage, We Love you and Wish you well on the next stage in your life's journey party? It would be a big help to those of use who visit regularly, who have not been able to visit before but would like to see him before he goes. We need something to ease our adjustment, to reassure us he will be happy, safe and healthy, and well loved and taken care of.

Brandie Smith: We expect to provide visitors with many opportunities in the coming months to celebrate Tai, his time here with us, and his future in China. Please remember that he can be regularly seen on the Web cam, so there will be plenty of opportunities to get your Tai "fix" before he leaves.


Dallas, Tex.: Why can't Tai stay here and be matched up with one of the girls from Atlanta or San Diego?

Brandie Smith: Tai's genes are most valuable in China. This is a global program to save the species and his best mate matches are there. This is a great question because it reminds us that he's part of the world-wide population of pandas and that we are working together to save a species. We are sad that he's leaving us, but happy that he is so important to panda conservation.


Arlington, Va.: Is it likely the Washington Zoo will see more baby pandas any time soon?

Brandie Smith: We sure hope so! Pandas usually breed sometime during March - May. Last year Mei surprised us, and the pandas mated in January (a reminder that we still have a lot to learn about these amazing animals). With all of you, we hope to hear the pitter-patter of tiny panda feet this year.


Washington, D.C.: Any idea why the San Diego Zoo has been allowed to keep their cubs longer than we have? I think Hua Mei stayed until she was over 5, for example.

Brandie Smith: Under American zoos' agreements to have pandas, all panda cubs are slated to eventually go to China. We have a great relationship with our Chinese colleagues and we have been fortunate to have Tai for 2 and a half years beyond our initial agreement (during which time we've learned a lot).


Fairfax, Va.: Are there any discussions underway with an American zoo to sell or lend us a panda?

Brandie Smith: American zoos work together under a Giant Panda Species Survival Plan. Decisions are made based on what's best for them, their conservation, and the population as a whole. This is true for pandas and for other endangered species that we care for and conserve in zoos.


Binghamton, N.Y.: Will we be able to see Tai on any pandacams in China?

Brandie Smith: We look forward to getting information on Tai when he is in China and we promise to continue to share information about him with all of you and all our visitors here at the Zoo.


London, U.K.: When Fu Long returned to China recently his Austrian keeper was able to go into the panda yard with him and sit beside him as that is their approach in China. How do you feel about the NZ keeper accompanying Tai having the opportunity to do that? Do you think it is wise as he is not used to it or would you follow the Chinese advise?

Brandie Smith: Since Tai was born, we have been preparing for his return to China. We have cared for him in a way so that he is very adaptable and comfortable with change. We know there will be changes in his management when he returns to China. We often talk about Tai and how he is a very "confident" bear, so we know he won't have any problems adapting to new surroundings. We're really looking forward to working with our colleagues in China to share our knowledge about Tai and how we have managed him, making sure his transition is a smooth one, and also learning from them and how they manage their pandas.


Woodbridge, Va.: When is the last opportunity to get a glimpse of Tai Shan in person?

Brandie Smith: We don't have a specific date for his departure. As with any endangered species, we are working to make sure all the proper permits are in place. We do estimate that he will leave here some time in early 2010. We hope you can make it to the zoo to see him, his parents, all the animals here. And please remember that you can see our giant pandas on the Zoo's Web cam.


San Diego, Calif.: Hi Brandie! Although it is a very sad day for panda fans, I want to thank you and your staff for the excellent care you've given Tai over the past 4.5 years. If there are any festivities at the zoo prior to his departure, would you please give as much advance notice as possible? There are many of us from out of town who would love to participate! We love Tai and we will miss him very much. Thank you.

Brandie Smith: Hi. Thanks for the nice comment. You're very welcome. We love working with Tai and we are going to miss him. We know how much you all care about him and will be sure to share information about him whenever we can.


Potomac, Md.: Considering how much Tai Shan is loved here, wouldn't it be in China's interest to let the panda remain here as a wonderful symbol of friendship between our two countries?

Brandie Smith: We have a great relationship with our Chinese colleagues. We are working together to look out for the world's population of pandas, which are in danger of going extinct in the wild. We would love for Tai to stay. We're going to miss him. But, as we all know, he is a very important panda and he is going to China to help save his species.


Vancouver, B.C.: Why are pandas so nice?

Brandie Smith: Well, I work at the zoo because I think all animals are nice. But you're right. Pandas are pretty special. They've got great faces and great personalities. They're playful, but laid back. Plus, they've got this great, grassy bamboo smell.


Arlington, Va.: When is the "lease" on the other two pandas at the zoo up? What will happen then? Does the zoo get other pandas or will you be panda-less?

Brandie Smith: The first pandas arrived at the zoo in 1972. We, and all our visitors, are very committed to keeping pandas here. Our loan of Mei and Tian is up for renegotiation in 2010. We are confident that the National Zoo will have pandas long into the future.


Silver Spring, Md.: What sort of projects is the National Zoo contributing to in China? This could be monetary or expertise support.

Brandie Smith: The Zoo is involved in a number of conservation projects for many endangered species in China. For pandas, we support research, education, breeding, management, training, etc. projects. There are too many to list here, but if you're interested, you can find out about all our conservation projects on the Zoo's Web site. Please know that when you support the zoo, you're the supporting the animals we have here, and you're also supporting their conservation in the wild!


Good-bye dear Tai: We will miss him so very much. When Mei Sheng, the San Diego Zoo cub, was returned to China in 2007, the zoo blogged extensively about the preparations and the journey with one of his caretakers. Will the National Zoo do this also? It was reassuring at the time to know that everything possible was done to ease the stress of the journey for Mei Sheng. And since we know that Tai has a sensitive tummy, we who have followed him from day one of his life want every precaution to be taken to safeguard his health and well-being.

Brandie Smith: Please know that Tai will continue to receive the best of care throughout his life. We will continue to share information about him with all of you. And please come visit him. We have lots of great volunteers here who love to talk with the visitors and share stories about our pandas.


Columbia Heights, D.C.: Have you ever involved representatives of the D.C. government in the lease talks? Might the Chinese government be willing to give some concession as a gift to the people of D.C. (and as a thanks for the D.C. services given to the embassy workings)? This would differentiate our pandas from those at other zoos.

Brandie Smith: We have a long standing relationship with the China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA). We have been working with them and also with the Chinese Embassy. Although we did try to keep him, ultimately the decision was made that we needed to adhere to the original agreement and it was best for him to go to China to contribute to the breeding population there.


Fairfax, Va.: Why is San Diego Zoo able to breed many pandas, but D.C. isn't?

Brandie Smith: All animals are different. We are fortunate to have one of the best repro teams in the country (who have actually pioneered some of the breeding techniques). But no matter how much great science we have, it comes down to the two animals. Mei and Tian have some challenges when it comes to breeding, but I promise we're doing all we can to help them fill the world with more pandas.

The breeding window for pandas is tiny -- once a year, for only about 2 days. So if they don't produce a cub, we have to wait a whole other year to try again.

_______________________ Photo: Tai Shan


Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: No question, just a great big THANKS to the National Zoo staff for allowing Tai Shan and his parents be a big part of our lives via the Panda Cam. I will greatly miss 'my Boy' and look forward to his contributions to the Giant Panda population in the future. Thank You, Tai Shan, for everything you've meant to so many of us!

Brandie Smith: You're welcome! Thanks so much for the compliment. And we're very glad that you enjoy watching Tai on the Web cam. We welcome you and everyone who has watched Tai grow up to come and visit him here at the zoo.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Brandie,

Have the Chinese improved in their level of veterinary care? As recently as 8-10 years ago they were losing pandas due to preventable illnesses/conditions.

(a veterinarian)

Brandie Smith: The Chinese have a very successful panda program. Since we partnered with them ten years ago, the Chinese have had tremendous success with caring for and breeding pandas and they are close to reaching the very significant goal of having 300 pandas in captivity. We know that Tai will be well cared for in his new home.


England: Do you have any idea where Tai Shan will be going as his new home? I hate to think of him ending up at the type of zoo that Tian Tian's mum did It would be nice to have some comfort in knowing he will be as well cared for in his new home as he is at National Zoo.

Brandie Smith: We put so much effort into giving all of our animals great care, that we really appreciate the compliment. Thanks! But we're sure Tai's new home will be a good one. He's going to be sent to the Wolong's Beifengxia Base in Ya'an, Sichuan.


Fairfax, Va.: Most animals have instinct to attack the young after they grow older just to force them leave. Do pandas do the same?

Brandie Smith: Pandas do wean their young. Tai Shan and Mei were separated two and a half years ago and they currently don't have any relationship. And they show very little interest in each other even when they see each other through yard windows. This is just like they would act in the wild. Tai is reaching adulthood where there is minimal interest and no bond with his mother.

They don't call, they don't write, they don't visit -- just like any child when they leave home!


Brandie Smith: Thank you everyone for your questions. I've enjoyed answering them.

We're grateful that there are so many of you out there who care about the zoo and care about our pandas. We know Tai Shan is special to you and he is very special to all of us here. We will miss him. But it's ok, because we know he's off to do important work in China.

He will be here for a few more months. Please come and visit him. I've heard on the radio that it's supposed to snow this weekend. You might not think that's a good time to visit the zoo, but I can say that there is nothing better than watching pandas play in the snow.

Please continue to watch our Web cams and visit out Web site. We will do everything we can to update you on Tai.

Best regards!


_______________________ Giant Pandas (National Zoo)


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