Panda focused: The stars of the national zoo

Photo by Abbe Murphy, map by Smithsonian Zoological Park. 

“Panda, panda, panda!” the dozens of grade-schoolers chanted as they were corralled and marched into the home of Bao Bao the Giant Panda.

The Smithsonian National Zoo of Woodley Park in Washington D.C.  is packed to the brim with 2,000 exotic animals of 400 different species, one-fifth of whom are endangered.  To most however, it is simply home of the Giant Pandas.

As one enters through the zoo the first deviation from the general path is to the right; a veritable tunnel of bamboo and Asian plants signaling the start of a zoo section called the Asian Trail, the end of which leads to and culminates with the Giant Panda exhibit with pandas Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and Bao Bao.

Perhaps some of the popularity of the Giant Panda’s is due to their rarity. According to , the Smithsonian’s zoo website, the Giant Panda is endangered. Only 1,600 pandas currently live wildly in the mountain bamboo forests of central China and 300 more live in captivity around the world, 27 of which live in zoos outside of China.

Currently there are only 12 giant pandas in four zoos in the United States of America, all of which have been loaned from China in the spirit of panda diplomacy shared by the two nations since the 1970s.

Unfortunately the panda popularity at the National Zoological Park of Washington D.C. has overshadowed the various other populations of endangered species to be found in the zoo.

“I hate to admit it but yes that’s true [people come for giant pandas], in fact across Connecticut avenue we have two big convention hotels. When there’s a break in the convention they come over here for an hours break to see the animals,” said one zoo volunteer.

Among the other endangered species at the zoo like the Fishing Cat and the Ring-Tailed Lemurs, each of which are gifted with their own singular display exhibits as opposed to the panda’s numerous exposed video feeds, rooms, building, enclosure, stuffed animals, t-shirts, ski-hats, and even ties.

The panda pampering is likely not without cause. The pandas are big-ticket items for the zoo as evidenced by the end of the Asian trail which neatly deposits visitors close to the start of the zoo, the only thing separating them from the exit being an Asian/panda themed restaurant and shop filled with an array of tourist money-magnet panda merchandise.

That said, enjoy the company of Bao Bao while you can, she’s slated to go back to China when she turns four on Aug. 23, 2017.
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Watch Smithsonian Giant Pandas live here

Bruce Tanlim, Abbe Murphy and Simone Burns contributed to this story.