Home to Giant Pandas for almost 30 years, the Smithsonian National Zoo is one of only fifteen zoos outside of China to house these emblems to conservation. Rolling hill sides give way to over 12,000 square feet consisting of two outdoor yards, rich in foliage, a den in each and plenty of space to explore. On our first day visit both pandas were in their outdoor yards, one curled among trees fast asleep, the other sauntering like giant pandas do, feet turned inward, around the far end of his yard.
The second day we visited both pandas were in their indoor enclosures within the Panda House. Here were two large glass fronted enclosures with rocky outcrops, water features, enrichment toys and plenty of bamboo. Mei Xiang was sitting on her rocky outcrop devouring bamboo, while her mate Tian Tian sat directly in front of his glass window, casually munching his bamboo, watching us on the other side like a human with a bowl of popcorn in hand waiting for the entertainment to begin. To be within a few feet of a giant panda with only glass separating us I was in total awe.
On the opposite wall of the enclosures are various educational materials including videos of pandas at the zoo and in the wild, information on the zoo’s successful births as well as conservation methods. Also in the Panda House is a video observation room, where three people were eagerly monitoring the pandas and recording their observations. Having this room visible to the public goes to show the serious strides the zoo and its researchers go to ensuring happy and healthy pandas and provide key knowledge on how to manage captive populations.
One should not forget while visiting the Asia Trail to be sure to pay close attention to the high rock wall lining the lower path in front of the outdoor giant panda enclosures for an aquarium hidden in the rock wall. What lies within the murky water? The Japanese giant salamander, at 55lbs and five feet long, lurk the depths almost camouflaged among large rocks. Gifted to the zoo by the Japanese government, the zoo now hopes to breed this endangered species.