You may have caught the news recently about a very special FedEx delivery to China’s Sichuan province: aboard the company’s custom-appointed 777 jet were two distinguished passengers, headed from the U.S. to the Chengdu Panda Base.   They traveled in plexiglass crates accompanied by an entourage of caretakers, a vet, and a FedEx staffer. Their first-class treatment included 40 pounds of food, and all they wanted to drink – in this case, bamboo and water.

PandaMei Lan, born at Zoo Atlanta, and Tai Shan, born at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, arrived safely in the native homeland of their fellow giant pandas to join a breeding program for this endangered species. The two bears are midway through a 30-day quarantine period during which they are being introduced to new foods, new keepers and simple phrases in a new language.

The pandas’ repatriation is part of an agreement between the Chinese and U.S. governments. Giant pandas are only loaned to the United States for scientific studies, and all cubs are to be returned ultimately to China to enhance conservation efforts. Currently, fewer than 2,500 giant pandas remain in the wild.

Mei Lan, 3, will stay in Chengdu while Tai Shan, 4, will move to the Bifengxia base of China’s Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Ya’an, 150 km away. Bifengxia is very close to the pandas’ wild habitat of misty mountainsides, waterfalls and eight varieties of bamboo. Bifengxia was badly damaged in the May 2008 earthquake but is again fully operational. Both research centers promote conservation education and are featured on Natural Habitat Adventures’ Wild and Ancient China trip.

PandaBoth panda bases are dedicated to scientific research geared toward bolstering the species’ population and reintroducing pandas born in captivity to their natural habitat. Researchers study reproduction, nutrition, veterinary medicine and behavior in an effort to better understand and manage the species in the simulated environment and in the wild.

Many of China’s 50-odd panda reserves were severely damaged in the 2008 earthquake, though the government is striving with conservation partners like the World Wildlife Fund to rebuild their infrastructure. Communities near the reserves experienced great loss of life and livelihood, and their well-being is essential to the proper stewardship and viability of the reserves. A rapid return to conscientious panda tourism in Sichuan will hasten the welfare of people and pandas alike.