WASHINGTON, D.C.  (WJW) – After captivating the hearts of millions during their 23-year stay in the United States, the Smithsonian National Zoo’s beloved giant pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, are embarking on their journey back to China.

The pandas, along with their offspring, Xiao Qi Ji, who was born in 2020, will be returning to their homeland as part of a research and breeding program.

According to CBS news, the Smithsonian National Zoo announced that forklifts would carefully transport Mei Xiang and Tian Tian into FedEx trucks, which will then transport them to Dulles International Airport. However, to ensure the pandas’ privacy and minimize stress, they will not be visible during their transfer onto the “FedEx Panda Express,” a specially-decaled Boeing 777F aircraft.

The departure of the pandas from the airport is scheduled for 1 p.m., marking the end of an era at the National Zoo.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived at the zoo in 2000, as part of an agreement between the zoo and the China Wildlife and Conservation Association.

Originally intended for a ten-year stay, the agreement was extended several times, with the expiration date set for December 7, 2023.

During their time in Washington, D.C., Mei Xiang has given birth to a total of seven cubs. Sadly, three of them passed away before reaching adulthood, while three others have already been returned to China at the age of four, as stipulated by the agreement.

Following the official departure of Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and Xiao Qi Ji, only four pandas from the research and breeding program will remain in the United States.

Lun Lun and Yang Yang, the giant pandas at the Atlanta Zoo, along with their offspring, Ya Lun and Xi Lun, are expected to return to China in 2024, bringing an end to the U.S.-China giant panda collaboration.