Giant Pandas Are Returning to D.C.’s National Zoo. Meet Bao Li and Qing Bao.

Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post
People enjoy the farewell festival Panda Palooza at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo on Sept. 30, 2023.

Giant pandas are coming back to Washington.

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo announced Wednesday that two new giant pandas – Bao Li, 2, a male, and Qing Bao, 2, a female – will be arriving from China later this year.

Roshan Patel/Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute
Giant panda Bao Li at the Wolong Giant Panda Reserve in China.

Bao Li has family roots in the District.

He is the son of Bao Bao, a female giant panda who was born at the zoo in 2013, and the grandson of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the panda couple whose departure from the zoo last year broke hearts and signaled the end of an era.

Yue Wu/The Washington Post
Bao Bao climbs a tree at her first birthday celebration at Smithsonian’s National Zoo on Aug. 23, 2014.

But now comes a new era and a chance for fresh generations of zoo visitors to experience the thrill of panda mania and the hope that the new bears will someday produce cubs.

“I am filled with such joy right now,” said Brandie Smith, the zoo’s director. “It’s hard to express it.”

“The program is so important to giant pandas,” she said in a telephone interview last week. “We are working to save an endangered species.”

Smith said giant pandas have drawn millions of visitors to D.C., and millions more have watched the zoo’s pandas on the panda cam. “I’m excited for us. I’m excited for them.”

The announcement was a surprise, given the tense relationship between the United States and China, which owns and leases all giant pandas in U.S. zoos, and the short period of time since the departure of Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and their son, Xiao Qi Ji, late last year.

In remarks at the zoo Wednesday morning, Xie Feng, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, said the two countries should be on better terms.

“For the well being of both peoples, and the future of the world, China and the United States should choose to be partners, not rivals,” he said. “I encourage everyone to care for China-U.S. relations just as you care for pandas, and joyfully usher in a peaceful and prosperous future.”

The new pandas are coming on a 10-year lease, ending in April 2034, during which the zoo will pay the China Wildlife and Conservation Association $1 million a year, the zoo said in its announcement.

“I don’t think we thought it would happen this quickly,” Smith said. “But we have such a great partnership with our colleagues in China. It was just really a seamless conversation to bring the pandas back.”

Smith said she has not yet seen the new pandas in person, but a delegation from the zoo visited them during an official trip to China earlier this month.

“They look great,” said James Steeil, the zoo’s supervisory veterinary medical officer, who was part of the delegation. “Both are going to wow [the] D.C. audience here, but also the American audience as a whole.”

“The male, Bao Li, has very similar qualities to some of our previous pandas, given that he’s related to them,” he said. “You can kind of see some of that personality play out. He likes to roll around. He likes to play in water. He likes to eat.”

Referring to the female, he said, “Qing Bao is a little bit more reserved.”

Roshan Patel, Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute
Giant panda Qing Bao, born Sept. 12, 2021, eats some bamboo at the Dujiangyan Panda Center.

Assistant curator Laurie Thompson, a veteran giant panda keeper who will help oversee care of the new pair, said: “It’s been a really long time since we’ve had little youngsters, two of them. It will be like having two cubs.”

“It’ll be exciting, because the little guys are definitely full of energy,” she said in a telephone interview last week.

Smith, the zoo director, said the pair will not be “playmates.”

“They’re not social animals,” she said, noting that in the wild they don’t live in large groups.

“So we’re not going to put them together,” she said. “But we are going to create opportunities for them to catch glimpses of each other, get each other’s scent.”

The animals could eventually breed naturally or with the help of artificial insemination, the zoo said.

Frances Nguyen, founder of the Pandas Unlimited Facebook group, said in a telephone interview Wednesday that she went to the zoo on Monday to visit the gorillas and saw construction at the panda house.

She said her heart skipped a beat. “I just felt it: They’re coming,” she said. “I thought, ‘There has to be an announcement soon.’”

When her husband broke the news to her this morning, she immediately posted on Facebook: “Yes! Pandas in D.C.”

“I am still trying to get to know them, and it’s still so new,” she said. “But, wow, they look so cute.”

In the fall, before Mei Xiang and Tian Tian left the zoo, Cyndy Taylor of Fairfax County and her family, panda fans who had visited the bears over decades, walked through the panda house to say goodbye.

“The one thing I was worried about [in] getting new pandas is forgetting the pandas that were here,” she said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “Now you can’t, because with Bao Li, they’re all related.”

It’s not clear when the new animals will arrive, but zoo spokeswoman Annalisa Meyer said the zoo prefers to ship animals such as giant pandas in cooler weather. A fall arrival is a good bet, she said, but for security reasons, the zoo won’t reveal the exact date.

Asked whether Bao Li was picked to come to the zoo because of his D.C. ties, Smith said, in part, yes.

The main goal was to aid genetic diversity and overall giant panda care and conservation, she said. But when the chance to bring a panda with local lineage came, “this was just an obvious choice,” she said.

FedEx will provide free air and ground transportation for the bears and their Chinese keepers to the United States, the zoo said.

The animals will be quarantined in the panda house for a minimum of 30 days after their arrival to reduce risk of introducing parasites or disease to other animals.

After their quarantine, the bears will get a few more quiet weeks in their new habitat. Their public debut will take place when the zoo believes they are ready for the onslaught of visitors.

Bao Li is pronounced BOW-lee and means “treasure” and “energetic” in Mandarin Chinese, the zoo said. Qing Bao is pronounced ching-BOW and means “green” and “treasure.”

Smith said the animals will have to learn a few words of English, but they mainly respond to hand signals and will gradually learn the sounds of their keepers’ voices.

Food-wise, the National Zoo’s giant pandas have traditionally munched on special panda biscuits. In China, they were fed a kind of panda bread. Zoo nutritionists have asked for the recipe, Smith said.

The zoo hopes they will eventually breed and produce cubs. Giant pandas reach sexual maturity between the ages of 4 and 7.

A cooperative research and breeding agreement was signed by Smith and Wu Minglu, secretary general of the China Wildlife and Conservation Association.

“The new pandas will enable Smithsonian scientists to find more effective methods for natural breeding and/or assisted reproduction,” the zoo said in its announcement. Giant panda reproduction is notoriously quirky and unpredictable, as the zoo learned in breeding Mei Xiang and Tian Tian.

Over two decades, the couple produced four surviving cubs. Tai Shan, a male, was born in 2005 and sent to China in 2010. Bao Bao, born in 2013, was sent to China in 2017. Bei Bei, a male, was born in 2015 and sent to China in 2019. Xiao Qi Ji, a male, was born in 2020.

All cubs born in U.S. zoos are, by agreement, sent to China around the age of 4. Mei Xiang, 25, and Tian Tian, 26, went back because the term of their lease was up.

The zoo said its David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat is being renovated for the first time in more than a decade.

The giant panda cam, which has been dark since last year, will be restarted after the pandas arrive.

The zoo also announced a $25 million drive for public and corporate donations over the next 10 years to support the renovations and other parts of its giant panda programs.

The Smithsonian’s 163-acre zoo in Northwest Washington is home to 2,200 animals representing 400 species. It sees about 1.9 million visitors a year. Admission is free. Its Conservation Biology Institute, on a 3,200-acre campus near Front Royal, Va., conducts breeding, veterinary and conservation research in a rural setting.

It had been only six months since the sunny morning of Nov. 8 when the zoo’s last three black-and-white bears were carried in metal travel cases from the zoo’s panda compound for the final time.

Keepers wept as the animals were taken via forklift to the FedEx trucks that would take them to Dulles International Airport and on a 9,000-mile flight to China.

The zoo’s giant panda story began in February 1972, when President Richard M. Nixon and first lady Pat Nixon made a historic Cold War visit to communist China.

At a banquet in Beijing, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai promised Mrs. Nixon that China would give some giant pandas to the United States as a friendly gesture.

Later that year, giant pandas Ling-Ling, a female, and Hsing-Hsing, a male, both about 18 months old, arrived at the zoo.

Ling-Ling died suddenly in 1992, and an ailing Hsing-Hsing was euthanized in November 1999. The zoo was then without giant pandas until December 2000, when Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived.