The most famous residents of the National Zoo in Washington, DC, on Saturday celebrated half a century of panda diplomacy with China and marked the milestone with a cake made from frozen fruits and vegetables.
The first pair of giant pandas – Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing – arrived at the National Zoo in April 1972 as a gift from the Chinese Prime Minister to the then First Lady Pat Nixon.
“I think they are adorable, adorable creatures,” Nixon said at the time.
It is now 50 years since the pandas first tumbled, chomped, flopped, staggered and fought their way into the hearts of Americans.
“It’s 50 years with one of the world’s most successful conservation programs,” said National Zoo Director Brandie Smith.
But the success took a while. Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing did not mate for more than a decade – and none of the five cubs they produced survived for more than a few days. Ling Ling died in 1992, and Hsing Hsing died in 1999.
But these early heartaches led to some crucial discoveries. In 2000, the zoo’s second pair of pandas – Mei Xiang and Tian Tian – arrived in DC, and scientists began to learn more about their reproductive systems.
“Females are only viable for about two days a year,” Smith said. “And then to study it and understand it, it’s not a big window.”
“Now we are literally tracking the hormones,” Smith added. “So we see the hormones change. And we can clarify to the moment when the best time for this panda to reproduce is.”
The result? Tai Shan in 2005, Bao Bao in 2013, Bei Bei in 2015 and Xiao Qi Ji in 2020.
All the babies have grown up under the watchful eye of about 2 million visitors each year – along with millions more who tuned in via the zoo’s “Panda Cam” around the clock.
To celebrate the half-century, animal keeper Nick Schiraldi whipped up the pandas’ favorite treat: cakes made from frozen fruit juices, apples, pears, sweet potatoes and lots of bamboo.
“The baby loves the cakes,” Schiraldi said. “It’s a new thing! He’s going to smash them, roll them around …”
This baby, like the others before him, must return to his ancestral home before his fourth birthday, according to the zoo’s agreement with China. But with a little luck – and a lot of science – we will soon fall for a new baby.
First published April 16, 2022 / 20:25
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