Breaking News
More () »

Pandas mark 50th anniversary in DC with cake and lots of fans

Thousands traveled to celebrate the day with the Smithsonian National Zoo's three pandas.

WASHINGTON — 50 years ago, pandas took up residence in Washington, and they have become some of its most beloved neighbors.

On Saturday, Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and their baby Xiao Qi Ji (which means “little miracle”) enjoyed a fruit-and-ice cake for their “Panda-versary.”

“They’re absolutely stunning, I didn’t realize how actually big they were, it’s awesome,” said Curtis Johnson III of Springfield, VA, who brought his 3-year-old son Caleb to see them. “It’s his first time at the zoo so he’s in awe really right now.”

The first pair of pandas arrived in D.C. on April 16, 1972, thanks to a deal between First Lady Patricia Nixon and the Chinese Premier.

Since then, they’ve become the most popular attraction at the Smithsonian National Zoo. Their 50 years have improved relations with China – called “panda diplomacy”— which have bolstered conservation efforts, and ingrained the bears into Washington’s identity.

“For me, the birth of Xiao Qi Ji was pretty spectacular,” said chief curator Brian Amaral. “During my entire [5-year] tenure here we’ve tried to have panda cubs, and for various reasons that we are not sure of, we were not successful but August of 2020 changed all that, so that was pretty amazing.”

Credit: AP
Giant pandas Mei Xiang, left and her cub Xiao Qi Ji eat a fruitsicle cake in celebration of the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, 50 years of achievement in the care, conservation, breeding and study of giant pandas at The Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, Saturday, April 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Thousands traveled to visit them this weekend, including Theresa Kinslow, who flew in from Houston with her father specifically for the panda-versary.

“When I was little they took me to California and my uncle there gave me a little panda, Ling Ling a long time ago,” said Kinslow. “So with this anniversary, I thought it would be a good time for us to get together and see pandas again.”

Credit: katie kyros

In 2021, pandas were downgraded from endangered to vulnerable status by Chinese conservation officials, although they still face many threats, including the threat of climate change to the bamboo forests where they live.

What’s next for the pandas?

The current agreement allows for them to continue to live here until December 2023. But the Smithsonian will work to negotiate a new deal with the China Wildlife and Conservation Association before then, in hopes that the pandas’ legacy here continues for years to come.

RELATED: Rabies: Symptoms, testing and treatment options

RELATED: Here's how the National Zoo is celebrating 50 years of giant pandas

Before You Leave, Check This Out