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Giant pandas have been stars of the National Zoo for 50 years

Since Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing arrived from China in 1972, the species has thrilled zoogoers.

First lady Pat Nixon at the Smithsonian's National Zoo on April 20, 1972, for the official welcome ceremony for giant pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. The pandas were a gift from China to the American people shortly after Nixon and her husband, President Richard Nixon, visited China . (Smithsonian?s National Zoo)

Few animals receive as much attention as giant pandas. The black-and-white furballs can be seen in zoos around the world, but hardly any lived outside their native China until a half-century ago. Their arrival in Washington, D.C., was a big deal, but it came about in an unexpected way.

When President Richard Nixon and his wife, Pat, made an official visit to China in February 1972, the first lady sat next to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (pronounced joh en lie) at a formal dinner. She mentioned that she loved pandas. Zhou, who was looking to improve China’s relationship with the United States, responded, “I’ll give you some.” He made good on the offer just two months later. A pair of young pandas — a female called Ling-Ling and a male, Hsing-Hsing (shing-shing) — arrived at Washington’s National Zoo.

“I think panda-monium is going to break out right here at the National Zoo,” Pat Nixon said jokingly at the arrival celebration on April 16.

Nixon was right. People from the Washington area and across the country stood in long lines to see Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. Not only were they cute, but they also had a compelling story: The species needed help because the number of wild pandas in China was declining due to habitat loss and other problems.

Fans hoped the pair would produce cubs, and they did. But none of the newborns — who are the size of a stick of butter — survived longer than a few days.

Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing spent many years at the zoo, dying there in old age in 1992 and 1999.

The Smithsonian wanted to continue learning about pandas and educating the public about the endangered species. The Chinese government offered to lend a male panda and a female panda for $1 million per year. The zoo agreed, and Tian Tian (tee-YEN tee-YEN) and Mei Xiang (may-SHONG) arrived in December 2000. The two instantly became the most popular animals at the zoo.

Panda-watchers grew even more excited in 2005 when Mei Xiang gave birth to Tai-Shan (tie-SHAN) in 2005. Each cub milestone became a news story. Sadly, Tai couldn’t stay at the zoo. Pandas born there were required to be sent to a breeding program in China, so in 2010 the city said farewell to its much-loved cub.

A giant panda is big and black and white. Surprisingly, it can hide in plain sight.

Mei eventually had three more healthy cubs: Bei Bei (Bay Bay), Bao Bao (rhymes with wow wow) — who both moved to China — and Xiao Qi Ji (SHIAU-chi-ji), who is still at the zoo. Xiao Qi Ji was called “little miracle” because his mom became the second-oldest giant panda known to give birth when he was born in 2020.

The National Zoo has planned a “pandaversary” April 16 and 17 to mark 50 years of giant pandas in Washington. The event will include dance performances, scientist talks, showings of a new panda documentary and treats for Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and Xiao Qi Ji.

In the past 50 years, the giant panda story has become more hopeful. Thanks to conservation efforts in China and zoos worldwide, the species has moved from endangered to threatened, a less-worrisome category. Those interested in seeing pandas in person should visit the National Zoo before December 2023. China has decided that all three pandas will leave Washington at that time, and there is no plan to send more. It could be a new era for the species — one spent mostly at home.