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Time flies and, soon, a panda will too. Bei Bei, the four-year-old giant panda cub phenom, will depart the National Zoo for the Bifengxia Panda Base in China on November 19th.
Per an agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association, all American-born pandas are sent to a Chinese breeding program after their fourth birthday.
National Zoo Director Steven Monfort and Deputy Director Brandie Smith join us, along with Colby Loucks from the World Wildlife Fund, to discuss Bei Bei’s farewell celebration and the future of the panda conservation and breeding program.
Produced by Laura Spitalniak
- Brandie Smith Deputy Director and head of Animal Care at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute
- Colby Loucks Senior Director of the World Wildlife Fund's conservation program
- Steven Monfort John and Adrienne Mars Director, Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute
KOJO NNAMDIWell, all good things must come to an end, so they may as well end in style. Bei Bei, a male giant panda cub at the National Zoo will depart D.C. for China on the 19th of this month. The zoo has a variety of public celebrations and programming planned to send Bei Bei off in grand fashion, but today, we'll talk about Bei Bei's goodbye and the future of panda conservation efforts. Joining me in studio is Steven Monfort. He is director of the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Steve Monfort, thank you for joining us.
STEVEN MONFORTThank you.
NNAMDIBrandie Smith is head of animal care at Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Brandie, thank you for joining us.
BRANDIE SMITHThank you.
NNAMDIAnd Colby Loucks is the senior director of the World Wildlife Fund's Conservation Program. Colby, thank you for joining us.
COLBY LOUCKSGreat to be here.
NNAMDISteve, I'll start with the question on every panda fan's mind: why does Bei Bei have to leave?
MONFORTWell, we have an agreement with the Chinese government, and at the age of four, all of the pandas born outside of China are to go to China to become part of the breeding program there. So, he's a very important contributor to that program, in the future.
NNAMDIBrandie, how is the zoo celebrating and saying goodbye to Bei Bei?
SMITHWell, one day isn't enough for us to celebrate his departure. We are going to have eight days of festivities where people can come to the zoo. They can see Bei Bei. They can say their goodbye. They can eat dumplings and write postcards and really revel in his time at the zoo and wish him well for the future in China.
NNAMDIBrandie, but there are still pandas at the National zoo, correct? What can people expect after Bei Bei's departure?
SMITHWell, we still have Bei Bei's parents. We have Mei Xiang, who is 21 and Tian Tian, our male, who is 22. So, they're a little bit older, but they are still adorable. So, I highly recommend people come and see them.
NNAMDISteve, how popular is the panda exhibit with visitors?
MONFORTWell, we have about two million visitors per year, and more than 80 percent of every visitor sees those pandas. And they've been here 20 years, so that's an awful lot of people. And plus our webcams, many, many millions more.
NNAMDISo, it's only one in five visitors who do not see the pandas. Everybody else does.
MONFORTI would say the pandas are the iconic species for the National Zoo. There's no question about that.
NNAMDIBrandie, what are the logistics of getting a 250-pound panda bear from D.C. to China?
SMITHWell, you know, I liken it to when other people travel. We want to make sure that he goes there, that he's comfortable when he travels, that he travels with the food that he loves, his favorite toys. His favorite people are going with him.
NNAMDI(overlapping) So, you can't book him on a regular airline flight. (laugh)
SMITHOh. no, not for a giant panda. He gets a custom flight. It is just for him, and he gets a direct flight from here to Chengdu, and he will be going in style.
NNAMDITell us about how he's going in style.
SMITHWell, he is going -- we have a custom crate, just for him. He will be traveling with his favorite treats. He will be attended to by our veterinarian and by his curator, who is one of his favorite people on the planet. They'll spend the entire time with him. We're spending time now, making sure he's going to be comfortable for the journey, that he's prepared, that he's ready to go. And when he gets to China, he will be surrounded by a whole new country of adoring fans.
NNAMDIColby, now that pandas are no longer endangered, why are programs like this still important?
LOUCKSI think most people won't be able to go to China to see pandas in the wild, so Bei Bei is the face of panda conservation, the face of conservation, in general. I think that pandas are almost a universal symbol for conservation, and so this is a way for millions of people to engage with endangered, yet very cuddly animal and wildlife.
NNAMDIBrandie, do pandas have a family unit, similar to humans? Do we have to worry about Bei Bei getting homesick?
SMITHOh, no. Pandas are mostly solitary in the wild. So, Bei Bei hasn't interacted with his parents for years now, for about two years, since he was weaned. He does interact with his keepers, in terms of training them, but we know that the keepers in China are going to love him just as much. He will adapt to them very easily, and be just as comfortable.
NNAMDIWill Bei Bei ever be released into the wild?
SMITHBei Bei won't be released in the wild, but what excites me is that he could be the parent, he could be the sire. His offspring could roam wild in China.
NNAMDIColby, a great deal of work that the World Wildlife Fund does focuses on children in the next generation of wildlife enthusiasts. Why have you decided to make that a focus?
LOUCKSI think, obviously, the children are obviously the future for conservation. And we need to have their -- especially the younger kids, with the media, whether they're on social media. They can start to engage and learn and know much more about pandas conservation much faster and quicker than older people like myself. And so we're able to (word?) younger. And so I think those kids in the younger generation are going to be, obviously, the future for a lot of important issues in society.
NNAMDIWhat steps can kids interested in helping the pandas, or kids interested in helping the planet in general, take?
LOUCKSWell, first off, there is a tremendous number of kids books on Bei Bei, on pandas, on endangered species. Education is key, I think, and so anytime you can learn more about something, such as pandas or endangered species, conservation, you're going to be a better person. And so there's just so many opportunities just to become much more knowledgeable on these issues. And with that education and knowledge, I think you'll be able to be a better ambassador as you grow up.
NNAMDIIt reminds us, Steve, that the National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute are also, in many ways, educational institutions. What do you see kids learning when they come to the National Zoo?
MONFORTWell, the first thing we want families and, you know, parents with their kids, we want them to have fun, of course. But we hope that they're going to be inspired by what they see. And, you know, today, a zoo is trying to figure out how do we translate a visit into conservation. So, we're hoping that the idea of having empathy for animals that they see at the zoo will help translate into action, so that even a young person can start to see themselves as becoming educated about the environment, becoming closer to nature, figuring out how they can have a role in finding solutions to some of the really intractable problems we face.
MONFORTNature is under a lot of stress. Kids growing up want to feel that they have a role in the future. You've seen this with, you know, the climate action groups, and so on, with young people. We want to inspire young people to take action to help save the environment for the future.
NNAMDIHere's Amanda in Arlington, Virginia. Amanda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AMANDAHi. I know you said that Bei Bei doesn't have a social unit -- still have a family unit after a couple of years. But humans definitely do, so I'm wondering how you're preparing the curator and the people who care for him day in and day out to say goodbye.
SMITHWell, you know, we...
NNAMDIIt's harder for the humans than it is for Bei Bei. (laugh)
SMITHIt really is. It is for all of us and, you know, we have known since the second that he was born that this is his future, that he is going to go to China. He will go there to start his own family unit, to have cubs of his own. So, on one hand, it's really difficult for us to see him go. But, on the other hand, we're so proud of him, of his success, the fact that he's going to contribute to more pandas in the world and be part of conservation, in general.
NNAMDIBut, Amanda, you can guarantee there will be tears, okay? (laugh) Steve, in 2015, directors at the National Zoo and the China Wildlife and Conservation Association extended the panda program to, I think, the end of 2020. What does the future of the program hold?
MONFORTWell, under the terms of the agreement, we need to renegotiate new terms. December of 2020 is when the current five-year agreement expires. The Chinese ultimately make the final decisions about what occurs with the loan agreement, but we're hoping -- the message from us is that we have a 47-year history with giant pandas, dating back to Pandamonium in 1972, when they first came to America. And we think that we have a proud history of a partnership with the Chinese counterparts. And we've made a huge success together, and we're hoping that we have another 50 years working together on giant pandas, both at the National Zoo, but also in China.
NNAMDIWell, this is Washington, so we have to talk politics. There's been speculation in the media about whether political tensions between the U.S. and China could affect cultural and scientific initiatives between the two countries, including the panda breeding agreement. Is that something you're concerned about, at this point?
MONFORTYou know, so far, there's been no communication through official government channels about any of this. We're banking on the fact that we've been great partners together. We've had success in helping to save a species that has been upgraded from being endangered to now only threatened. And that those relationships that we have that are not political, that are about sincere and technology and partnership are very, very strong. And so we're confident that both parties will recognize the value of continued partnership. But we feel no political pressure at this time.
NNAMDIAre there any other conservation programs at the zoo similar to this one, on this scale?
MONFORTAbsolutely. Well, the Smithsonian is an institution that's been around for 172 years. And I think we're unique within the zoological community. We make long-term commitments to conservation programs. Species like the golden lion tamarin, the black footed ferret, the giant panda, the scimitar-horned oryx, species that we have invested decades in our conservation efforts.
MONFORTJust with the pandas alone, direct financial support of $14 million went to support pandas through the government of China investing in conservation. And we put in millions more by putting our scientists in the field. They're there right now, working hand-in-glove with our Chinese counterparts. And that investment is something that -- you know, we're a knowledge institution. The Smithsonian's National Zoo is really invested in the long-term partnerships. And these kinds of commitments are standard for us.
NNAMDIBrandie, how do the people who travel with Bei Bei to China help the new caretakers learn his habits, his ways, his idiosyncrasies?
SMITHWell, one of the great things about giant pandas is they're pretty kind of obvious in their needs, right. They're not complex. They're pretty straightforward in terms of what they want. Mostly, it's food. And so a lot of the time working with the keepers is maybe some of the training signals that we use showing him, you know, what are his favorites, that he prefers apples over sweet potatoes, and just kind of getting to know some of the little things with him. But we've known from our previous pandas, they transfer pretty quickly.
NNAMDIEarlier this summer there was some excitement that Bei Bei's mom Mei Xiang may be pregnant, but that didn't turn out. It was a false alarm. What are the chances she may give us a new cub sometime soon?
SMITHSo, Mei Xiang is what is known as at advanced maternal age. So, at her age, it is actually unlikely that she will have another cub, but it's not impossible. Our pandas are healthy. They're doing well. They have defied the odds before. So, as long as Mei Xiang goes into estrus, as long as she shows that she wants to breed, we'll continue to give her the opportunity and hope she produces more cubs.
NNAMDIAnd, Colby Loucks, I asked Steve about the conservation programs at the National Zoo. Tell us a little bit more about the World Wildlife Fund's Conservation Program.
LOUCKSYeah. The World Wildlife Fund was the first NGO invited into China, by the government, to work. And it was on the giant panda. And so, since the 1960s, we've been focusing on some of the main threats to the giant panda, but also many other species, is the loss of habitat.
LOUCKSSo, we've been working with our government counterparts, as well, to increase the number of protected areas. There are now about 67 protected areas, covering about half the pandas' habitat. Two-thirds of the pandas live in those protected areas, but that means there's still one-third of the panda population live outside of protected areas, so increase the protection. Reducing some of the threats like roads and railroads are going into the mountains where the pandas live kind of fragments them up, so the pandas can't find their mates.
NNAMDIAnd Bei Bei leaves on the 19th of November. Remind our listeners what happens between now and then, starting on the 11th.
SMITHWe are going to have eight days of celebration for our giant panda. I have to say, I recommend that people come on Saturday, because that is the day we are going to have free dumplings for folks who come to visit him in the morning to see the ceremony. That's really going to be the big day.
NNAMDIYou said the magic word, free. Yes.
SMITHYeah, well, dumpling, for me, is the magic word. (laugh) But we're going to have -- it's going to be an amazing day of celebration. Saturday, we're going to have a lot of events for people to attend to say goodbye to him. And then, on the day that he leaves, we're actually going to be closed that morning. The day that he leaves, we are focused on his transport to China.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Steve Monfort, Brandie Smith, Colby Loucks, thank you all for joining us. This conversation about Bei Bei's departure from the National Zoo was produced by Laura Spitalniak. And our segment about police body cameras was produced by Maura Currie. Tomorrow, on The Politics Hour, outgoing chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Sharon Bulova on her career and what's next for Blue Virginia. Plus D.C. councilmember Anita Bonds talks affordable housing. That all starts tomorrow, at noon, on The Politics Hour. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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