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Why are the Smithsonian's National Zoo's beloved giant pandas returning to China?

The giant pandas are scheduled to return to China in December.
/ Source: TODAY

Zoogoers have enjoyed seeing the giant pandas at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C., ever since the first pair of giant pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, were gifted to America by China in 1972.

Now, the zoo is home to two adult giant pandas, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, who arrived in 2000 as part of a conservation and breeding agreement with China. The agreement regarding these pandas between the U.S. and China was originally for 10 years, but has been extended several times.

But the extension of a partnership that originally started more than 50 years ago is coming to a halt, as the giant pandas are scheduled to return to China in December.

This decision comes amid increased political tensions between the U.S. and China.

"It’s no secret that there’s some tensions between the two governments right now. I just hope that doesn’t play into this because conservation should be apolitical," Ron Magill, communications director with Zoo Miami, said on TODAY on Aug. 28.

Tian Tian and Mei Xiang have resided in the zoo for more than 20 years. In 2020 they welcomed a male cub, Xiao Qi Ji, whose arrival was celebrated with a live Panda Cam watched by millions of viewers.

Panda lovers worldwide have watched the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s Panda Cam's round-the-clock feed that has showcased the giant pandas doing all sorts of activities, from climbing trees and playing in the water, to sliding down snowy hills.

When visiting the zoo, seeing the giant pandas is often on the top of tourists' sightseeing list.

"They’re the stars of the show here. And I mean, they’re a staple. I think of the Smithsonian Zoo, I think of the pandas," zoo visitor Jason Churchfield told TODAY.

Because of their popularity, they've raised millions of dollars and have helped open the door for others to learn about the value of conservation efforts.

"There's been no greater ambassador to getting people to love animals, love nature, love conservation than the giant panda," said Magill.

The Smithsonian's National Zoo is hoping a new partnership can be forged, but there still is time to see the giant pandas. The zoo is planning to send the three pandas off with a "Panda Palooza" celebration that will run from Sept. 23 through the beginning of October.

The Atlanta zoo is also home to giant pandas: Lun Lun and Yang Yang, and their cubs, Ya Lun and Xi Lun. The young cubs are expected to travel to China in early 2024, per the zoo's agreement with China. Their parents will remain at the zoo per the terms of their loan agreement, which is currently set to expire in late 2024.