Image: National Zoo Panda
Ann Batdorf  /  AP
Tai Shan, the National Zoos giant panda cub, plays in a tree at his home at the zoo in this June 9, 2006 file photo.
updated 12/4/2009 2:57:27 PM ET 2009-12-04T19:57:27

A young giant panda who became a major draw after his birth at Washington's National Zoo will leave for China early next year for breeding.

Zoo officials announced Friday that Tai Shan (pronounced "ty shawn") will be leaving the Smithsonian Institution park as soon as January or February.

Panda mother Mei Xiang (may-SHONG) and father Tian Tian (tee-YEN tee-YEN) are on a 10-year, $10 million loan to the zoo until December 2010.

Under the Smithsonian's panda loan agreement, any cub born at the zoo must be returned to China for breeding. Tai Shan was born in 2005 and was granted a two-year extension in 2007.

Panda cubs are also slated to leave the zoos in Atlanta and San Diego.

14 pandas on loan
There are a total of 14 pandas on loan from China in U.S. zoos in Atlanta, Washington, San Diego and Memphis, Tenn. Under its agreements with the zoos, China loans panda pairs for breeding and conservation research. Any cubs those pandas produce are also property of China and must become part of the country's breeding program.

The National Zoo asked to keep Tai Shan until the loan agreement for his parents' stay expires, but a panda conservation group decided he should become part of their breeding program, according to Acting Zoo Director Steve Monfort.

The zoo hopes they can translate the attention Tai Shan generated into action to sustain the panda population, Monfort said. Giant pandas are endangered in the wild.

Zoo babies

"While we're very, very sad Tai Shan is leaving, we take enormous pride that he is a normal, healthy cub," Monfort said.

"He is an ambassador," Monfort said. "He provides hope for the conservation ... of an iconic species."

Wang Baodong, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy, said he has often visited the zoo with his 4-year-old son to see Tai Shan and he'll have to explain why the panda is leaving.

"It's not an easy thing for the Chinese side," he said. "Parting is a sad thing."

Wang said the Chinese want to assure the American people that Tai Shan will be given very good care. He said China will continue its partnerships with U.S. zoos on breeding programs.

The Smithsonian is expected to begin negotiations next year on whether to extend the agreement for Tai Shan's parents' stay. Monfort said they will agree to whatever is best for the panda breeding program.

"I'm very optimistic that pandas will be at the National Zoo for as long as the eye can see," he said.

Tai Shan represents the plight of the endangered species around the world, said Lisa Stevens, the panda curator.

"As zookeepers we're very attached to him. We've watched his every move," she said. "Now it's time to say goodbye."

Stevens said Tai Shan is very confident and more flexible than his parents when it comes to change and she doesn't think the change in language from his handlers will be a problem. His training records and documents will be translated into Chinese for his departure, she said.

Giant pandas at the National Zoo date back to President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China. The first panda couple, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, arrived in 1972 as a gift to the American people. They produced five cubs, but none of them survived.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Panda-monium: Cub heads home to China

  1. Closed captioning of: Panda-monium: Cub heads home to China

    >>> them.

    >>> if you visit washington with your family or with your school, there's a good chance a stop on your trip will be to see tai shan , the 4-year-old panda who was born here in the u.s. the panda that china is now taking back. the move is breaking hearts in washington . and why wouldn't it? our report tonight from nbc's andrea mitchell .

    >> reporter: tai shan appeared unfazed today, oblivious to the uproar over his custody.

    >> we understand this is traumatic for a lot of people, not the least of which is our own staff, but for the public.

    >> i'm sorry. we're going to miss him.

    >> he's on my web cam every day.

    >> reporter: the zoo says 2 million people a year have watched tai shan 's web cam . the first panda cub born here to survive infancy. he was nicknamed butter stick for his tiny size. to his current 200 pounds. in fact, america's love affair with pandas started in 1972 , when president nixon opened the door to china and beijing sent washington its first panda couple. the company tracked every fetal heartbeat as they tried to produce a cub.

    >> in another long-running washington drama --

    >> the panda cub born to ling ling has died.

    >> reporter: now, even though tai shan was born here-a pears on a u.s. stamp, and is hugely popular, it turns out officially he is chinese. today china's spokesman seemed embarrassed to be taking him away.

    >> i'm afraid i'll have to work hard explaining to some of my colleagues in the chinese embassy and particularly to my family and my son.

    >> reporter: the news even reached the secretary of state at nato.

    >> i can't talk about it. i'm too upset right now.

    >> reporter: so could china's panda grab cause a rift in diplomatic relations ? and if they want their panda back, what's next? could beijing even try to call in our national debt ?

    >> sad.

    >> why sad?

    >> because i like the pandas.

    >> i think it would be nice for him to go to china so that he can go back to his home.

    >> reporter: tonight tai shan 's keepers only hope his parents can produce another cub before they too have to return to china next year. andrea mitchell , nbc news, at the national zoo .

    >>> there's word tonight former mayor


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