WASHINGTON (DC News Now) — Panda fans from all over the country gathered outside the Smithsonian National Zoo to say goodbye to 3 giant pandas Wednesday morning.

Crews took the pandas to Dulles International Airport from which they departed for China.

For more than 50 years, the Smithsonian National Zoo and the Conservation Biology Institute have cared for and studied the pandas.

The zoo team has made breakthroughs in healthcare, disease treatment, and reproductive science for the pandas.

After more than 25 years on the endangered species list, pandas have been downgraded to ‘vulnerable.’

China owns and leases all giant pandas in the United States, the pandas are being returned as their leases were set to expire.

This comes at a moment when trade relations between the U.S. and China appear strained.

Some fans were disappointed to realize the pandas were leaving so soon.

“I called the zoo over the weekend, they said they would be here until the 15th. We drove six hours just to find out this morning that they’re leaving this morning,” said Brian Bush, who had hoped to see real pandas for the first time.

Dozens of people came to Dulles International Airport to see their departure.

The pandas were loaded onto the FedEx “Panda Express” and began their 19-hour journey at around 1:00 p.m.

“It’s such an emotional time, I’ve been [to the zoo] so many times, watching the [panda] family grow and bond,” said panda fan Jie Chi, as she waited for the pandas to take off at Dulles. “I’m excited, though, they’re going back to the real homeland.”

Chi expects a warm welcome in her home country of China when the pandas touch down in Chengdu tomorrow.

As for what’s next for the zoo, renovations are underway at the pandas’ previous home.