On Sunday, September 23, 2012, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo shared heartbreaking news with the city and the world: The tiny, unnamed giant panda cub, whose birth had thrilled people around the globe just six days earlier, was dead. The sad news unleashed an indescribably touching wave of sympathy. Hundreds of emails flooded the Zoo’s mailbox, and condolence posts multiplied swiftly on our social media sites. The Zoo team is profoundly grateful to everyone who took the time to send a sympathetic word, to let us know that you shared our grief.
Many of our kind correspondents asked if they might make a memorial contribution toward the Zoo’s work. Our thankful answer is yes. Any funds received will go toward the Zoo’s multifaceted work with giant pandas: animal care, reproductive science, and educational outreach in Washington along with research and conservation projects in the beloved bears’ Chinese habitat. Donate now.
Giant pandas first came to the Zoo in 1972. The initial pair, Ling-Ling (female) and Hsing-Hsing (male) were state gifts from China in honor of President Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to that country. Ling-Ling gave birth five times, but no cub lived more than a week. Ling-Ling died in 1992, Hsing-Hsing in 1999.
The Zoo’s current pandas, Mei Xiang (female) and Tian Tian (male) arrived in 2000. They are on loan from the People’s Republic of China. Mei Xiang delighted the world on July 9, 2005, by giving birth to a male cub later named Tai Shan. He did what no Zoo panda cub ever had: He lived. And he thrived. Washingtonians and pandas lovers the world over exulted as Tai Shan grew into a robust young adult. In 2010, he left the Zoo for a reserve in China, in accordance with our loan agreement.
Every year since Tai Shan’s birth brought the question of whether Mei Xiang would bring forth a sibling. Periodically her hormone levels and behaviors raised the hope of a new birth, but no cub appeared. By the time Mei Xiang was artificially inseminated in 2012, Zoo staff, long used to disappointing pseudopregancies, put the likelihood of a cub at less than 10 percent. That backdrop heightened the joy when Mei Xiang did indeed give birth on September 16, 2012.
The tragic loss of the Zoo’s newest cub underscores the challenges facing this endangered species. Panda scientists and conservationists aim to double the current population of pandas in zoos worldwide, to 300. When this goal is met, the population will have sufficient genetic diversity for long-term survival, and pandas will be available for reintroduction into the wild.
At the same time, the Zoo and its international collaborators strive to understand and protect the lives of these shy, elusive creatures in the wild. Much remains unknown about how giant pandas live—and thus how best to conserve them and their unique habitat.
Your help can ensure that giant pandas thrive, feed, frolic, and reproduce not only at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo but in the wider, wild world. Donate now.