The National Zoo's favorite son is leaving D.C.
Yes, the day to say goodbye to Tai Shan is finally, sadly, coming.
Sources at the Smithsonian and the National Zoo said that after four years of endearing himself to D.C. audiences and helping boost tourism dollars, the good ol' Peaceful Mountain, the first panda born at the Zoo to survive more than a few days, is being put out to stud in China to "contribute to species conservation."
Zoo officials announced this depressing news at a press conference Friday at 10 a.m. "We've watched his every movement, we've watched him grow into this charismatic character, and now it's time to say goodbye," said Lisa Stevens, curator of primates and pandas for the Zoo.
Stevens called Tai Shan "very confident" and and said he shows a lot more flexibility than his parents, thanks to the behavior management program the Zoo used to raise him. The cub is expected to handle the transition smoothly, she said.
Tai Shan isn't the only young panda scheduled to head to China soon. Zoos in Atlanta and San Diego are each sending one of their two cubs in the next year, said Stevens. A total of 13 pandas currently reside in the United States, including five cubs.
Tai Shan was born to giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian at the National Zoo on July 9, 2005, but he is on loan from the Chinese Embassy. The initial two-year lease was followed by a two-year extension and then a second extension of six months, which is set to expire in January 2010.
During that time, Tai Shan has been arguably the most popular resident at the Zoo. His every medical exam and birthday have been major media events. His departure is expected to have a negative impact on business at and around the zoo.
"Hotels worked with the zoo to do hotel packages and so we could track some business that was directly attributable to that," said Victoria Isley, of Destination D.C.
Across the street, the Zoo Bar Cafe saw first hand Tai Shan's positive affect on business in the area.
It's unknown when the adorable four-year-old's last day at the Zoo will be, but Dr. Steven Monfort, acting director of Zoo, estimated it will be sometime in late January or February 2010. Officials have applied for Tai Shan's export permit and are working out logistical arrangements, including air transportion.
But those who haven't seen the cuddly cub, or who want to hang with him one last time, better start making plans soon.
And a final note. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian's 10-year loan to the Zoo ends next year, according to the Associated Press. Could a panda-less D.C. actually be possible? Monfort said the Zoo will begin discussions with China soon and is "very optimistic" that D.C. will still have a panda presence.